One River Voices - A Celebration of Human Diversity Through Music by Clíodhna Ní Aodáin

I first attended a “Music for People” seminar 10 years ago in Kiental, Switzerland, where I met Mary Kynsh and David Darling. Since then, both Mary and David have been hugely influential in my approach to music making. 


(Article is published by MfP  Newsletter, Connections, USA, Spring 2017) 


As a classically-trained musician, I was terrified to play anything without sheet music and had no idea how to improvise. Over the years, I came to realize that creating music in the moment is a huge gift that can be shared with everyone and that through this process of communication a transformation takes place. This transformation can be on a personal, musical or spiritual level as people’s potential unfolds through spontaneous music making.



David Darling taught me how to believe in myself as a musician and Mary Knysh showed me how to connect with other people, accept them where they are and bring them to another plane of music making. Through their teaching I now believe that the biggest gift you can give to another person is to be present and to listen to them expressing themselves through music. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity of meeting and working with these two master musicians.

The Trigger

We presently live in a world where walls and discrimination are manifesting at such an alarming rate that many of us are living with a lingering sense of helplessness and fear. When the travel bans against Muslims were announced in the USA at the end of January 2017 I was shocked and appalled and wept profusely. I have a four-year-old son and this is not the world I want him to grow up in. For me it was the last straw. In my despair an idea formed to answer my question “What can I do?”


First Contact

A good friend of mine, the Irish Singer-Songwriter Shirley Grimes also lives in Bern, Switzerland and recently undertook a community project to form a choir for people with little or no singing experience. I contacted Shirley with the idea that we would form a choir with as many different nations and religions as possible. The plan was to spend the day together, learn and record a song and send this into the world as a message of unity, respect, tolerance and love. And so the One River Voices project was born.


Call for Help

Together, we sent out the call to all our friends and contacts to see who would be interested in taking part in this project. We needed a location, a sound technician, sound equipment, a camera crew, a film director, caterers, helpers for various jobs etc. and we wanted 200 singers. Within a few days it was clear that One River Voices resonated with many people and in two weeks we had the whole crew together.

There was no budget or funding. The whole project was driven by goodwill and everyone involved was prepared to contribute their time, expertise and resources free of charge.


When and Where

The date we found that suited the location and the main players was May 7th 2017. We got permission to use Köniz castle, a beautiful old building near Bern, and the people there were prepared to do anything to help us.


The One River Voices Team

An amazing film director offered to help us envision what we wanted and his input helped to create a wonderful event. We found a sound engineer and another friend brought all the technical equipment. We also had a fantastic event manager who pulled the whole project together, from the creation of a website and managing the registrations to the organization of the decorations and the food. On the catering side we had two cooks and many helpers who offered to bring salad and bread and cakes. It was wonderful to witness the project coming together. Now we just needed a choir!


Finding a Choir

Bern is a very multi-cultural city. The challenge was how to reach people from different ethnic backgrounds to invite them to join us. I started with the House of Religions, a building where eight different religions worship at different times. Then I contacted a refugee center in Bern where I had previously offered two drum

circles to the refugees. The “Music for People” techniques that I learned with Mary Knysh in her drum-circle facilitation seminars were invaluable.

Finally, on the Sunday before the One River Voices project took place, I went to a church in Bern where I knew there was a very international community. I was allowed to speak at the end of the service and I was so overcome that I broke down and cried in front of everyone. It was an authentic plea for people to join us and, in spite of my tears - or maybe because of them - I got a warm applause when I managed to finish.

Everyone I told about One River Voices was excited about the vision of an intercultural choir singing for unity, tolerance, respect and love and wanted to be a part of the project.


Setting Up

On the morning of May 7th I was nervous and excited. We knew that over 200 people were expected, but we didn’t know how many would show up on that cold Sunday morning. We were on site at 8am and, since we had spent the previous afternoon setting up, everything was ready. At 9am the first singers started to arrive and from then until 10am people poured into the building. I was very moved when I saw all of these wonderful people showing up to sing for a better world. In the end we had 350 singers from 40 Nations. Many came from the international church and we also welcomed 50 refugees from the center in Bern, several of whom I recognized from the drum circles.


“Music for People” Skills

I started the session by inviting everyone to introduce themselves to their neighbor in their own language.

I asked them to say “Hello”, their name and what country they were from. Next, I played a game to demonstrate that if we make a “mistake”, we can laugh. Two people count 1-2-3 out loud, alternating saying numbers, and starting at 1 again after 3. This is fun because the numbers switch around. Then the number 1 is replaced with a clap, but 2 and 3 are still spoken. This is even more fun because language is replaced by a gesture. The game goes on and the number 2 is replaced by a finger snap. Now only the number 3 is spoken. Finally the number 3 is replaced by slapping hands on the thighs. This is a fast and easy ice-breaker with a new group, as it get hilarious really quickly! The added benefit is that it crosses the midline of the body and it engages both sides of the brain. The singers had fun laughing at their “mistakes” and this created a culture of not taking ourselves too seriously, a key “Music for People” (MfP) skill.

Sirening & Babbling

Next, I moved into Sirening”, which is a lovely MfP skill to warm up the voice. I started with simple vocal modeling but quickly added the hands as a guide. When the choir had their hands in the air I stopped and waved them quickly. Then I said, “If these hands could speak…” and I started “Babbling”, another MfP skill. The room burst into a joyous babbling energy. It was amazing! I then modeled with a refugee woman how we could babble to each other and communicate although we didn’t have a language in common. It was beautiful to see a room full of people from 40 Nations connecting to each other. A magical moment for me was babbling to a refugee man who was slumped in a wheelchair. I babbled to him and

suddenly he came to life with a beaming smile and laughed and laughed as I babbled on.


Then I moved from “Babbling” to some classical vocal warm-ups and went from there to the song “One River” that we were learning that day. “One River” is a beautiful song written by Shirley Grimes that speaks of all of humanity belonging to one river. Shirley’s band was there to play drums, mandocello and guitar and I arranged further parts for choir, string quartet and flute.



The transitions from ice-breaker to warm-ups to the song were seamless. I modeled this type of session on the many MfP and Drum-Circle sessions facilitated by Mary Knysh that I have had the privilege of attending. Mary has taught me to be in the moment when facilitating so that the session can unfold its own magic.


When we had learnt “One River” I invited people from the intercultural choir to come to the front and say “ I am a voice” in their own language. It was stunning to hear all the different languages and after about 3 people I had the idea to ask the choir to repeat what they heard, like “Call and Response” in MfP. This was a really special ending to the session. I took the opportunity to say “I am a voice” in Irish and hearing 350 people echoing me was incredibly uplifting and a beautiful gift - like coming home.


We had a lunch break, which was a wonderful celebration of sharing. Our cooks made two enormous pots of risotto outside and there was a splendid salad and dessert buffet provided by many of the singers.


The atmosphere was really friendly and people were interacting and connecting with each other in spite of the cold.


Video Shoot

After lunch, the plan was to shoot a music video outside. It had been raining all morning, but just before lunch it stopped. Our director decided to risk setting up outside and our singers were happy to be part of the shoot. It was freezing cold, but the music and the positive energy kept our spirits up. There was even spontaneous dancing to an Irish Jig that the band struck up between shots.


Reaching Out

One River Voices is a music project that we hope will inspire other communities to come together to celebrate their diversity. In order to facilitate this, a video will be released at the end of June 2017. The playback, lyrics, sheet music of “One River” and our logo will then be available free of charge to download from our website.


Our vision is that music lovers around the world will do their own version of “One River”, film it and send it to us at info@ so that we can upload it to our facebook Page. 


Our dream

is to inspire more and more people to sing “One River” and to let the power of music bring us together in unity, respect, tolerance and love.

I look forward to hearing from many of the “Music for People” community!


Cliodhna Ní Aodáin, Bern, May 21st 2017

Clíodhna Ní Aodáin is an Irish professional cellist, conductor, composer, arranger, improviser and teacher living in Bern, Switzerland.

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