“SING lustily,” John Wesley instructed, “and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.”
Of late, it is people outside the Church who are returning to this advice. Television shows such as The Choir, with Gareth Malone, on the BBC, have enhanced a significant increase in interest in community singing, and recent scientific research helps explain why.
Ensemble singing fluctuates heart-rate, improves breathing, boosts the immune system, reduces stress levels, and can even help people cope with chronic pain.
Research from Oxford Brookes University in 2013 suggested that it was better for mental health than sport. A joint study by Harvard and Yale Universities in 2008 went so far as to conclude that choral singing in a Connecticut town had increased residents’ life expectancy.
Some modern forms of worship, however, which often use music more suited to the solo voice, can make congregational participation difficult. Where once hymns were an inextricable part of corporate worship, in some places they are a diminished presence. Arguably, the Church has often concentrated on musical excellence rather than collective endeavour. Most churchgoers have experienced the perfectionist choirmaster, or heard wonderful voices that they could never imitate.
Alongside the health implications, research also suggests that competency has no particular effect on the value of singing together. A study in 2005 reported that group singing “can produce satisfying and therapeutic sensations even when the sound produced by the vocal instrument is of mediocre quality”.
In any case, you need not be critical of contemporary church composers to wonder whether we have something to learn from the popular return to collective singing.
PERHAPS the basics are the most essential. A collective song is an invitation to make a noise. Many people — some more than others, and it is worth noting that the majority of those rediscovering the medium are women — are encouraged to be quiet in public.
So many of us repress sound and energy because it would cause trouble to express it. The very experience of using sound and energy can offer a release. Producing a sound alongside others encourages belonging. The altos with whom I sing find at last an expression that fits: neither the Disney princess of soprano nor the heroic male tenor, but something earthy and deep. Each of us discovers that we fit, finally, somewhere.
The research bears this out. “People who sang in a choir had a stronger sense of being part of a meaningful group,” Nick Stewart, of Oxford Brookes, said after his 2013 study, “and there is a suggestion that there is something unique about the synchronicity of moving and breathing with other people. . . At the moment it is speculative, but it could be that singing in a group gives us something that we have lost as a society.”
Siobhan Patten, a social worker for Birmingham City Council, who appeared on BBC’s The Choir: Sing while you work, told The Guardian: “It was a cathartic moment for me when I realised that I had an outlet for all the emotions I was carrying, and the choir became my much-needed therapy. I had never before realised the incredible healing powers of music.”
ON SUNDAY, the BBC will screen the Tribute to a Queen — the Big Sing: Songs of Praise, when 5000 people will form one chorus inside the Royal Albert Hall. The series producer, Matthew Napier, believes that being part of a congregation matters because each singer’s flaws are ironed out by the whole. “If you sing on your own in a field, it’s not going to sound that great — you’re going to hear your own imperfections. But alongside ten, or a hundred, or a thousand voices, those flaws fade away.”
For him, adding a spiritual element creates an even more profound experience. “When rugby supporters sing ‘Swing low’ together at Twickenham it can be a spine-tingling experience. But believers adding their own faith, via these beautiful words, must surely add an extra dimension. The combination of faith and song cannot be equalled.”
The many theological encouragements to sing — something we are biblically encouraged to do for God’s sake — thus have a counterpart in human benefit. Wesley continued his musical instruction with this request: “Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.”
What we know now is grace: that such worship is for us, as well as the heavens.
Simon Jones sings tenor with London Sacred Harp, an a cappella shape-note group that welcomes all comers. The Sacred Harp UK Convention takes place at Henry Wood Hall, London SE1, this weekend.