Monday, June 08, 2020

What is unique about singing together?

Singing together in a group is something special. It is a very different experience from singing on your own.

But what exactly is it that we get from singing with others?

There’s a quote going around social media at the moment:

“If a choir is only about singing and performing – there will be no choir for a while.

If choir is about teaching and learning, growing, connecting, community, cultural exploration and transmission, and innovating – we will find a way to have choir.” Kellie Walsh

Which got me wondering: what exactly do we mean by ‘choir’ and why is singing together with others so special?

what is a choir?

People have sung together in groups for many thousands of years. Singing in groups is widely spread in traditional cultures (both singing in unison and in harmony).

The modern notion of a ‘choir’ dates back to the mediaeval church and began with Gregorian chant. Over time, polyphony and harmony singing developed with composers using formal notation to create sacred, and later, secular music for particular groupings of voices.

Gradually choirs became more formal involving training, auditions, conductors and performance.

This is very different from traditional group singing where a whole community might sing together spontaneously without leader or audience.

In more recent times, many so-called community choirs have sprung up. These tend to be less formal than classical or church choirs and don’t usually involve auditions or trained singers (or even a requirement to read music notation).

It seems to me that community choirs have arisen in places where traditional group singing is no longer common. With people becoming more socially mobile and cities growing ever larger, it is less likely that any given group of people will know any songs in common.

This means that people who want to sing together in groups need to find a suitable person to lead them in song and to teach them a common repertoire of songs. Spontaneously breaking into song with a group of people from your neighbourhood is a thing of the past for many cultures.

what is special about singing together?

There has been a lot of research lately into the benefits of group singing. It has been shown that a group of people singing together tend to synchronise their heartbeats. The health benefits of group singing are greater than those gained from singing by yourself.

Apart from health benefits (both mental and physical), what is so special about singing together in a group?

Here is my list:

  • building something together – for me, this is the most important and the most amazing and mysterious aspect. A group of strangers can gather in a room with no special equipment or training and within minutes create something together as a group.
  • making and hearing harmonies – my love is for harmony singing. There is something special about two or more voices creating something greater than the sum of the parts. The gaps between the notes is where much of the emotion in a song comes from. It’s impossible to do on your own.
  • connection: eyes and ears – whilst singing and without speaking or even knowing the other person, there is an intimate connection between singers. Both visually and aurally. Singers respond to each other in the moment and make constant tiny adjustments.
  • working and breathing as one – there’s a point when singing together when it seems like the music is singing itself. There are moments when it’s effortless and the whole group is functioning as a single organism with nobody leading.
  • sense of achievement – when a song has been learnt, there is an enormous sense of achievement, especially if it’s tricky or has complex harmonies. “Yes, we’ve nailed it!”
  • making beautiful music – there are many possible creative group activities, but the one we’ve chosen is to make music together. Hearing a group singing together in harmony is why we do it!
  • social interaction – choirs don’t usually sing the whole time. There are breaks when people make new friends and catch up with old ones. Socialising is the glue that often holds a choir together.
  • learning new skills – not only new songs, but developing vocal technique, learning about other cultures, breathing more fully, extending your vocal range: the list is endless.
  • having fun – you take the work seriously, put the time and effort in, but don’t forget that the whole process is joyful.

singing online: what is missing?

Since choirs are not currently meeting , many people are joining singing sessions online. There have been plenty of comments about how this is not the same as singing together in the flesh. Next week I want to look at What online singing can and can’t achieve. And are there other ways of replicating what we’re missing from choir?


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Chris Rowbury




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