Singing as a Spiritual Practice
Date: June 30, 2011
[somrthing I wrote for a recent newsletter...]
Everyone knows that music has special powers. It can move us, comfort us, energize us, inspire us, heal us. It can transport us away to places beyond the realities of everyday life. It can get into our wiring and stir up a variety of memories and emotions within us. It can change our mood and make us glad to be alive. I think that since this is true for music in general, it’s even more so for music that is sung. The addition of words to a piece of music makes it all the more potent. And then there’s the fact that the sound is amazingly created solely with the human body. It’s a miracle.
I love to sing. My first experiences began at the age of nine in the National Cathedral choir down in Washington. Most parts of the countless religious services I sat through felt hollow to me, but not the singing. It was mysterious and magical. At that age I didn’t have words to describe the feelings I had when we sang, but I knew something was going on that was loftier than everyday reality. Now I realize that I was having an ethereal, spiritual experience. And now I also realize why I’m so drawn to repeating the experience as often as I can, and why I’m so drawn to helping others share the experience.
I love to teach people how to sing. A lot of people tell me that singing is even scarier for them than public speaking – there are so many opportunities to make “a fool” of one’s self. It can be frightening to be so vulnerable. I’ve learned that like a lot of things in life, when we sing we tend to get in our own way sometimes. I find that people make great strides when they learn to simply turn down the volume of the pre-recorded voices they have in their heads telling them that they’re not good enough - when they block out their regrets of the past and their fears of the future and remain in the moment. There’s a life lesson here.
I also love conducting choruses. To tell the truth, I’ve sung in many auditioned, professional choruses in my life which were frankly not much fun – there were too many out-of-control egos in competition all around. I prefer working with groups that don’t have auditions, putting very experienced singers next to inexperienced ones. There’s something wonderful about this kind of inclusion and the sense of community it creates. There’s a feeling of “we’re all in this together.” I’m sure we’ve all heard performances that were technically perfect but that somehow left us cold. I certainly have. But I’ve heard and performed in many performances that were technically imperfect but nonetheless quite moving. And so I frequently joke with my singers, telling them that there are no such things as “mistakes”, only “improvisations”! I urge them not to focus on things that don’t go the way we’d hoped, and to let them go; to stay in the moment; and to focus on the positive. Like I said: singing is full of life lessons!
There have been many scientific studies that prove that singing is indeed good for your health. After an hour of singing, blood pressure and heart rates go down, and energy and immunoglobulin levels go up. It’s a fact. I’m often told by folks that they’d arrived at chorus rehearsal feeling frazzled by the busy events of the day, but that at the end of our time together they’d felt relaxed and less stressed. The deep breathing has a lot to do with it. So does the concentration on things other than our daily problems. Then there’s the sense of accomplishment that comes with confronting challenges. And the sense of inner joy at the possibility that our singing will move someone, comfort someone, energize someone,inspire someone or heal someone in our audience. Singing together in such a group is also a wonderful social experience – the kind that is all too infrequent in this changing world. Friendships are formed between people who wouldn’t have met otherwise. Walls are broken down. Fears conquered. Hearts opened. Yes, singing is indeed a spiritual practice.