Playful People Making Change

SUSSEX & London

What’s in a Circle?

As community musicians, many of us are used to the circle being at the core of our practice.


“Ok everyone, welcome! Great to see you…

Can I ask that we all come and stand in a circle?


That’s right… just make sure that you’re comfortable, check that your feet are a hip’s width apart… perfect… now take a look and see if you’re standing a little in front or behind of the person next to you… try to make sure that you’re even…that way we’re going to get a really nice circle to form and we can make sure we can all see each other…”

Sound familiar? We tend to work in this way to encourage a feeling of everyone in the room being equally valued (including the facilitator). We are setting ourselves up for exchange, for the gifting of ideas, for the vulnerable act of contribution and reciprocity.

Lee Higgins says “The circle is a significant feature in community music because music facilitators organise participants within the circle’s “democratic” geometry. As such, the continual exchange between facilitator and participant, plus the special location of the group and their environment makes the circle a significant metaphor.” It is interesting to note the word cadeau, gift, comes from catena, meaning “chain”. (Higgins, 2021, p.152)

Higgins goes on to explore Gift theory within community music and its positive and negative characteristics. The positive being attributes such as empathy and care. The negative being the natural event of self-interest and systems of debts within human transactions. This reminds me of an eye opening conversation I had at Soundcastle Book Club with Diljeet Bhacchu  where she made the insightful observation that what we are in fact doing in community music settings is creating mini ‘micro-societies’ where we aim to set up values of equality, empathy, exchange and hope. Since our conversation, the image of the micro-society has accompanied me throughout my work and I often notice wider societal values being reflected back at me through the many interactions taking place.

Bearing wider societal experiences in mind, the circle asks a lot of the people forming it. Our bodies are literally exposed with nothing to hide behind. For some, this can feel liberating but for others it holds the power to be crushing. This is because, the circle asks community members to open themselves up to vulnerability. For some people this can feel positive, allowing them to access their inner creativity, contribute ideas to the space and feel recognised and seen. For others this feeling of vulnerability is exposing, they feel as if they are speaking into a wide chasm and their deeper insecurities and life experiences mean they don’t necessarily want to be seen.

As facilitators, we set up the micro-society within our circle and strive to access its positive power by creating a sense of safe space. We do this through warmth and reassurance, acts of hospitality to ensure that everyone feels welcome. Personally, I like to focus on the joy in mistake making and explore the feeling of making mistakes in the pursuit of creativity and fun. I find that if the community members can see me as facilitator making my own mistakes and taking risks in order to learn and grow, they are more likely to relax into creative exploration themselves. I also encourage everyone to notice each other…

“Take a moment to look around at other members of our group. If it feels good, make eye contact, give a wave or send a hello! This is your band! These are your team mates. Every one of us just another human being. Every one of us with our own reasons to be here….”


I do this to demystify the circle and to remind every one of us that we are all human beings with our own stories and our own challenges. We are not here to place judgement on others. Working in mental health settings, I find this process helps to take everyone out of our own heads and places of self-judgement (including myself) and bring each of us physically into the space.

And that brings me to my final point of this blog. That whether we like it or not and however much we give of ourselves to support the community to express their own unique voices, I believe the grounding point of the workshop is the facilitator. We set up the space, the atmosphere, the sense of safety.

Without establishing these frameworks, it is hard for trust and creativity to flourish. As facilitators, we are human beings with our own stories and our own insecurities. Just like the community members, our past experiences will impact upon our ability to be responsive, to listen, to interact.

Therefore I believe in order to truly access the positive attributes of Gift Theory, focussing on empathy and care, our levels of self-awareness need to be strongly attuned.


I approach self-awareness in the following way; When I arrive in the community setting, with some time to myself, I like to take a moment to focus on my breath and my body. Am I breathing slowly or quickly? Am I holding any areas of tension? What might this tell me about the energy I am arriving with today? Did I miss breakfast? Am I a bit stressed about a looming deadline? Am I full of energy and feeling great? How might any of these feelings within me impact upon how I facilitate, or my ability to be vulnerable and make mistakes?

Whatever realisations I have, I try to carry this self-awareness with me into the circle, to notice my reactions and hesitations, my ability to give and receive within the circle’s democratic geometry. If I can start from a place of self-awareness, I am far more likely to be able to support the community members to feel safe and held.

But this is just my perspective! I am interested to hear from YOU Soundcastle Community!


Free from judgement and full of curiosity, I’d love for you to share your approaches to working in the circle and creating that sense of safe space in the comments below.

And if you’d like to explore this topic further, come along to our online Soundcastle Session “What’s in a Circle” on Wednesday 19th January @ 10.30am.

Higgins, L. (2012) Community Music in Theory and in Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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