I wonder how many of us have ever said, “I can’t sing.” Not – “I can’t sing like (name your favorite singer).”
We just flat out deny our ability, when in fact we all can sing. Some of us negate this natural ability for fear of being laughed at (maybe again). Some of us, because we need to be among the best before we will do anything publicly. Whatever the reason, when I look out at the congregation where I serve I see a lot of folks who won’t even pretend to be singing.
This isn’t the way humans have lived for most of our communal history. As social animals, we’ve made song a part of our life together. As “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” says, we sing because we’re happy and we sing because we’re sad. But there is more. We sing our histories. We sing our longings. We sing our mythologies that speak of how and why we are in this world. We sing our prayers. Or at least we used to.
Unless you are a person who is in a choir you have few, if any, public places where you might sing with other folks– save a place of worship. And a place of worship is one of the few places where group singing is something other than performance. This communal expression of our humanity (in our culture at least) is all but gone.
What might we be at risk of losing as a species if our non-singing norm were to become the world’s norm? In other words, what does singing together in the course of our days do for us as humans? I wonder if it isn’t one vehicle that helps us bridge divides, that helps us enter the worlds of those who are different from us.
I remember standing among a coliseum filled to overflowing after Martin Luther King’s assassination. When we sang “We Shall Overcome” and those thousands of Black voices sang out their pain and sorrow it penetrated my soul. It became, in part, my pain and my sorrow.
I think about the military taking a disparate group of new recruits and teaching them to march. The role marching cadences plays is integral to transforming them into a cohesive unit. I think about the same dynamic shared music played for me trying to fit in at summer camp with a bunch of kids I hadn’t known before.
I would suspect that immersion in another language in the context where it is spoken provides the most solid foundation there is for bridging divides among peoples. Hence, the Peace Corps. Just singing others’ songs, though, (with or without understanding) I find gives me a sense of “being with.”
Song is more than language. It is that, but it is also rhythm. It is melody and style. Song embodies aspects of culture that spoken word does not. And with song, our bodies are more likely to be set free than with just the spoken word.
Song does more than bridge divides. It opens us up to and connects us with our deeper selves. It can help us access emotion we don’t typically express. It can instill hope. If we will let it, communal singing has the potential to do these same things in a group as well. We feel our own personal joy, and joining it with the joy of others Joy is increased. We feel our own hope, and when we join it with the hope of others, Hope is amplified. We experience deep peace that is magnified by the peace of others and there is more Hope in the world. And then there are those moments – almost indescribable, rare moments – when as a song ends, everyone together experiences that we are in the presence of the Great Mystery at the heart of Life.
This is the power of shared song. What a great cost might we be paying if it is ever lost.
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or firstname.lastname@example.org.