Communal Refrain / by Lily Greenberg

 San Francisco Botanical Gardens

San Francisco Botanical Gardens

“Come to a seated position, and take a deep inhale for om.
I faltered on my yoga mat. Om? Excuse me?
The instructor bellowed out the syllable, and to my surprise, so did everyone around me, with eyes closed and index finger bent towards the thumb.
I softened my gaze too and quietly joined in for the second om, but my hesitation at the unfamiliar formed a roadblock. I don’t sing in public, I thought.

But on the next inhale, for the third om, I set down my ego, dropped my shoulders down the back, and let my face slacken as I opened my mouth. And from my low belly vibrated a deep chord, in such unison with the voices around me that what I heard was the collective syllable resounding through and around me, not one single voice. I could not even pick out my own om from the rest. This was not singing in public, or some kitschy white bread sing-along. This was the sound of the universe, the encapsulation of every syllable available to the human tongue all rolled into one glorious release.


Pulling back branches, we plundered through the trees and beaten trails. Instead of a map, we followed the sound of applause, and piano keys. In the San Francisco Botanical Gardens, for 12 glorious days, a dozen pianos were strewn amidst the greenery, waiting for discovery. This was the final hour of the last day. Tomorrow morning, all the pianos would return to their indoor homes.

An older man with a nostalgic smile, sweeping through complex melodies, hunching forward to stir in a mixture of dissonant keys to his concoction, then gazing up to bask in his creation.

A nervous girl, clutching her beginner’s music book, bravely approaching the piano bench and plunking across the keys. When the wind blew her pages, Mother came running to hold her child’s sheet music.

A cheerful man with a Coldplay music book, leading us through our childhood anthems—we all still knew the words. He took requests, and we sang in unison.

A full band, with violin, guitar, voice—all gathered around the mecca, the grand piano.

A man in Oakley sunglasses with khaki shorts, and loafers, melting into a slow melody.

A woman pouring out love songs for her partner.

The beckoning pianos denied no one, and bystanders always applauded.


For most, communal singing is isolated and underwhelming. For the public, it's karaoke. It's feel-good Chris Tomlin worship songs in the church pews. It's endless Beatles covers by no-name bands. And then, all else, all real music, is for real musicians, and no one else. 

But then, I get glimpses of a different reality, where the question shifts away from whether the music is good or not, and in a new direction, asking whether the music is honest, whether it is full, whether it is life-giving. Like those rare moments at a concert, when the guitarist pulls the cord from out of her instrument, when the singer steps away from her microphone, and all gather at the tip of the stage, unplugged and naked voices. The critical eye of the beholder dissolves, and the audience becomes apart of one universal sigh of relief.