The Empowerment of Sitting in a Circle

Published 06/11/2019

By Howard Druckman

Last month, I attended the 2019 Manito Ahbee Indigenous Music Conference and Awards in Winnipeg. One of the first things that struck me was the fact that, for the first day of the conference, all of the 50-odd participants were gathered in a single circle. Sounds like such a simple idea, right? But it’s incredibly empowering.

It places the moderator, and the five or six invited, knowledge-sharing experts, on the same non-hierarchical level as the attending musicians seeking that helpful information. As five or six microphones are passed freely between all participants, everybody who wants to ask a question gets to do so. Every question gets answered, often by more than one of the experts, or fellow musicians. Everybody’s welcome, everybody can see each other, everybody gets to be heard, and everybody – from novices to experts – gets to share their insights.

On the second and final day of the conference, the format was revised into a “goldfish-bowl” style, with an inner circle of about eight seats – each with a microphone – at a round table, and an outer circle of the rest of the participants. Without any specified subject, those in the inner circle discuss whatever issues or strategies are on their minds; anybody in the outer circle is free to move to the inner one and speak their mind, as others who’ve already spoken move back to the outer circle. Again, everybody gets their chance to say whatever they want to, and the content flows freely.

The “big-circle” and “goldfish-bowl” formats are the most effective I’ve seen for sharing knowledge, live, at a conference. They’re practically revolutionary, especially when compared and contrasted with the format of  most music industry conferences.

At almost all other conferences I’ve attended over the past 30-odd years, almost all of the four-at-once sessions involve several experts and a moderator onstage, talking amongst themselves, before an audience of industry hopefuls. The “question-and-answer” section at the end is five minutes long, if that. The audience members rush the stage at the end to try and ask a question or two, and perhaps three or four of them get to do that. Even in the “one-on-one” consultations, each musician gets about five minutes with each expert, and they alone receive the knowledge – it’s not shared among the many. All of this is nowhere near as effective.

There’s so much to learn from how the First Nations music community operates, and I look forward to that process. Let’s start by sitting in a circle.

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About Howard Druckman

Lifelong music lover. Editor of SOCAN's Words + Music online magazine, and Music.People.Connected. blog. Freelance writer. Polaris Prize large-jury juror. Sing, co-write songs, play guitar, harmonica in high-energy hillbilly swing duo with my wife, called HOTCHA! Blue Jays fan, despite their record. Opinions expressed here are my own.

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