At this time of year in England, there is something healing about walking in the woodlands. I always feel that some of the loveliest flowers of all are cow parsley and bluebells.
I am also lucky enough to be a member of Songlines, a local community choir, and as the pandemic lockdown rules have been eased, we have been singing in Foundry Wood, Leamington Spa.
There are few things more beautiful than singing in a clearing in the middle of a woodland rich with fresh spring greenery. Of course, the birds do sometimes compete with us – not to mention the sound of the trains going past on the nearby railway line! Best of all is when a friendly and curious robin redbreast alights in the middle of our circle.
Perhaps I might capture a picture of him to include in a future post!
Nothing compares to the joy of a capella harmony singing – in perfect pitch, of course, and under the tuition of an inspirational musical director… or how about four musical directors, one for each voice part?
Recently I took part in an Abba singing workshop led by the B Naturals, a fantastic A Cappella quartet.
We all gathered in a church hall in Leamington Spa and the group members, each taking on the task of training a different part – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – taught us four gorgeous Abba songs: Does Your Mother Know, Eagle, Name of the Game and SOS. When you sing Abba songs you realise how complex they are, and also how discerning and often very moving the lyrics are, relating to so many different life experiences.
The four workshop leaders – Nick Petts, Guy Wilson, Dave King and Jon Conway – worked together, interweaving with each other as they taught the parts. What a joy it was, along with a great sense of accomplishment, as we mastered the rich harmonies, and sang the songs all the way through.
As a singer who belongs to two very different local choirs – a traditional choir and a community choir – I have often marvelled at the precious gift of music in our lives. The experience of singing in harmony with others is pure joy and one of the nearest things to heaven I can possibly imagine.
This high spiritual quality of music was recognised by JRR Tolkien in his book The Silmarillion. This book sets out Tolkien’s created world, which grew with him throughout his life: the ancient drama to which characters in The Lord of the Rings look back. And it opens with The Music of the Ainur. He begins: There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Iluvatar: and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought… propounding to them themes of music: and they sang before him, and he was glad….
Quite apart from the immense resources of classical choral music sung by traditional choirs, there is a vast repertoire of music suitable for arrangement for A Cappella Quartets and community choirs, and so many gifted composers and musicians who have created glorious music for us – the music of the Beach Boys, of Abba, of the Beatles among many, along with a wealth of songs of different types and genres from around the planet.
In the midst of a world where there is so much disharmony, tragedy and grief, let us uphold and celebrate one of the greatest and most spiritual gifts of all – joyous and uplifting music.
On Saturday night 7 December 2013 our local community choir, Songlines, conducted by Bruce Knight, gave a concert at St Mary’s Church, in Leamington Spa, to raise money for Water Aid.
It was a night where we saw and felt the power of music to bring joy and to uplift.
A standing ovation and calls for an encore confirmed this.
Our programme encompassed community choir arrangements of the moving Zulu song Egalile, full of exhuberant synchronized movements, including our well-rehearsed African shuffle; Let the River Run by Carly Simon, Sunday Morning by Reed & Cale, arr.Knight; the Beatles’ song Nowhere Man; Wake Up by Nick Prater arr. Ali Orbaum, and the Samoan song Fa’afetai i le Atua arr. Tony Backhouse.
A smaller group called Extra-stronglines also sang the gorgeous harmonies of the Beatles’ song Because.
A highlight was a performance of the South African National anthem Nkosi Sikeleli’l Afrika in tribute to the recent passing of Nelson Mandela.
And at the end, we walked off the stage, singing Love is like a river, let it flow, let it flow, let it flow.
Long may we celebrate the gift of music in our lives.
Singing is a gift of God, and a channel for empowerment.
This weekend has been an amazing time of singing.
And I’ve learned a few things about this life too.
On Saturday night, the choir I sing with, the Warwick & Kenilworth Choral Society, gave a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass that truly honoured the composer’s purpose. This was against all expectations – our own, and those of the conductor.
And yet, despite weeks of agony and doubt and struggle in rehearsal (plus the temptation, I suspect, for several singers, to give up) we succeeded.
“There will be some stunning moments,” said the conductor at the final afternoon rehearsal, “and some very hairy moments. Just find the next cue when you can come in.”
Not for a single rehearsal had the first sopranos ever sung it without getting lost.
And yet, on the evening itself – we sang it all the way through, even the most difficult bits, and didn’t get lost.
At the end,the conductor (probably rather bemused), said, with a beaming smile: “Well done. That was superb!”
This experience has taught me, that whatever we dare to believe, sometimes God’s grace snatches success out of the most unpromising places.
Here, a gathering of different community choirs from around England, all came together to learn some new songs, under the guidance of four Natural Voice Practitioners – dynamic, fun, energetic and inspirational.
The whole day was a totally uplifting, empowering experience.
Through a mixture of harmony songs – slave songs from the American south, songs from the Eastern orthodox church, or songs arising from Australian aboriginal or North American Indian spirituality, to “Price Tag” by Jessie J – the different choirs delighted with their singing.
I was enthralled to watch the varied styles of the conductors. Some conducted in a tradiitonal manner, others danced and bopped around in from of their choir.
And at the end the four teachers treated us to a hilarious and top-rate performance of the Beachboys’ song God Only Knows What I’d Do Without You.
In a “community choir”, the singers stand in a circle, without having to follow printed music, and the leader is at the centre, teaching the lines of music by singing them, and the choir members pick up the music from this. The lines of music seem very easy to sing, you master them quickly, then the fun comes when the leader directs you to sing it, perhaps, as a round, accompanied by movement. He may divide the choir into 4-8 groups and get each group to stagger their entries.
The sound of the voices blending is magical. And this – with the right direction – is really very easily achieved.
The Guardian article above refers to “wellbeing, mental or physical”. To that I want to add “spiritual wellbeing”.
Many different spiritual traditions have recognised this, and make full use of it.
Bliss through sound, using the human voice, is part of the Buddhist and the Yoga traditions. Years ago I went to the Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green, East London. There I joined weekly sessions of Buddhist chanting: an experience of joy and deep peace.
The Yoga tradition, too, has fully understood the healing power of sound, incorporating yogic humming and chanting into their practice.
Taize prayer , in the Christian tradition, also uses beautiful harmony singing, to achieve a similar sense of upliftment, and connection with God. I do this, too, every month, at St Peter’s Catholic Church Centre in Leamington Spa.
Of course few experiences of body, mind and spirit can equal that of singing with a large choral society in Bach’s B Minor Mass – and, indeed, any other major choral work. Being part of this grand swell of sound can lift you right out of this world.
So I celebrate Gareth Malone for spreading wide the love of choral singing and the knowledge that we can all sing – whether or not we currently believe so.
What about you? Do you believe you “can’t sing?” Has Gareth Malone encouraged you to believe otherwise – or perhaps to join a singing group yourself? Or maybe you’ve already experienced joy through singing in a group, large or small? Have you been inspired by the work of Gareth Malone? Let me know your experiences – I’d love to hear them!
You may enjoy these other posts by SC Skillman Blog on the subject of singing: