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A song for the joy of the singing

24 March 2023

The urge to sing is primal, healing, and transcendental, says Julia Hollander, in an interview with Sarah Meyrick


A disabled child enjoys a group music-therapy session

A disabled child enjoys a group music-therapy session

MANY musicians — perhaps singers, above all — remember the Covid-induced lockdowns as a time of crushing silence. Work dried up overnight, leaving precarious incomes under threat. Concerts were cancelled, and choirs of all kinds stopped meeting. Communal singing was declared to be a highly risky activity, in spite of the shaky evidence to support that position.

All true, says Julia Hollander, the author of Why We Sing. But there were compensations. As the spring of 2020 turned into summer, news emerged that nature was enjoying a revival in singing. Songbirds celebrated their best season for 150 years. Humpback whales in the Atlantic were discovered to be improvising new songs, entirely different from the ones that they commonly use for echolocation. Without the competition of container ships, they were able to sing to each other across huge distances, and, in doing so, created increasingly complicated music. The impulse for song appears to be universal in creation, and irrepressible.

Humans were in some confusion, none the less. “Every live music venue, every church and hall and theatre and pub stood silent as singers and other performers turned their skills to shelf stacking and street sweeping,” she writes in the book’s introduction.

“Yet on doorsteps and balconies and all over the internet, suddenly everyone seemed to know all the words to that Second World War classic, ‘We’ll Meet Again’, even the kids in the school playground. Along my street on a Thursday evening, once our clapping in honour of NHS workers was done, somebody dusted off their saxophone and accompanied a rousing communal rendition of similarly vintage number ‘Over the Rainbow’.”

Ms Hollander, who is 58, began her working life as a stage director in opera, but, by the time the pandemic struck, she was earning her living as a singing therapist, teacher, and performer in Oxford. Like so many others, she had time on her hands, and the pandemic got her thinking. What was it about singing which mattered so much?

As she says, “In this high-tech age of ours, when we can listen to 24-carat singing at any moment of the day, edited and tuned to perfection, how come DIY singing continues to happen at all? Why are we compelled to pursue such an apparently useless activity?”

She was, she says, intrigued. The seeds had been sown by her therapeutic work with dementia patients, through the Alzheimer’s Society, as part of their “Singing for the Brain” programme. The work is tough (“Sometimes, as the session approaches, I start to dread the responsibility, fearful of the suffering and confusion I’ll encounter,” she writes), but “surprisingly satisfying”, she says. She talks about how moving it is to see someone who can no longer speak join in the words of a song, or start to weep with emotion when they hear a couple of bars from “There’ll be bluebirds over The white cliffs of Dover”.


MS HOLLANDER came to music therapy via a poignant journey. Immie, the second of her three daughters, was born profoundly brain-damaged after a terrible birth in which she was deprived of oxygen. At five months came the diagnosis: her whole cerebral cortex had been destroyed, and she would never walk or talk.

Debbie HastingsJulia Hollander

But Ms Hollander and her fellow carers discovered that Immie responded positively to music. As she says, “Singing offered us something I’d assumed would never be possible: a relationship.”

This discovery introduced her to music therapy, and a whole new perspective on singing. “As I watched the therapists at work, my previous musical experiences started to seem far from creative,” she writes. “If their songs were rambling plants, mine might as well have come straight from a garden centre, hybridised over generations and completely inappropriate for Immie, whose ears weren’t trained for ready-made conventions.

“Her singing was intuitive, in the moment, without reference to anything but the vibrations in her body. She didn’t relate to concepts, not even her own name; but as the seed for a song, that name was capable of making her alert and happy and entirely alive.”

Singing, she concluded, opened up fresh possibilities. “She had demonstrated how integral song is to anybody, however vulnerable; how much it makes us human,” Ms Hollander writes. It made her realise that music shouldn’t be confined to musicians, or to a particular time and place. “It is a gift granted to everyone, even those without a cerebral cortex.”

And singing is demonstrably good for us. Biomarker tests on the saliva or blood of singers before or after singing show measurable changes in certain hormones: levels of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin all increase. Cortisol — the “stress hormone” — goes down. Adrenaline is a bit more variable, she says, because singers may need adrenaline to perform. It also actively stimulates the production of antibodies.

And singing together, as a community, adds a whole new level of benefit, both at an emotional level and also at a physical flesh-and-blood level. Research has even shown singers’ hearts beginning to beat in time with one another.

If we were in any doubt about its benefits, we have only to turn to the case study that she includes in the book about the therapeutic programme that the English National Opera (ENO) developed to help to counter the effects of Long Covid. “ENO Breathe” is a six-week online programme designed in collaboration with respiratory specialists at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust.

It’s based on the very gentle singing of lullabies — because lullabies are such an instinctive and universal form of song. The results of the programme are hugely encouraging: trials have shown that participants reported a significant improvement in their quality of life and, specifically, in their breathlessness, in comparison with a control group who were offered more standard post-Covid care. Referrals are coming in from NHS trusts around the country.


WHY WE SING is a rich combination of deep dive into the science — from neurology to behavioural psychology — and anecdote, stories from the author’s own life and those of her students and collaborators. She investigates the part played by singing across a lifetime, from the earliest development of the larynx in babyhood, through to adolescence, adulthood, and into old age. She looks at everything from lullabies and nursery rhymes to the use of song in specific circumstances such as worship, football, and protest.

It is a very personal book, drawing on years of experience and expertise, beautifully written and utterly engrossing. Much of what she has discovered and shared with the reader is autobiographical.

The story starts, arguably, with her grandfather, Hans Hollander, a Jewish Czechoslovakian musicologist, who escaped from the Nazis with his wife and three-year-old son (Ms Hollander’s father) only because, in March 1939, he received a letter of invitation from the BBC to travel to the UK to advise the BBC on Czech music. (Ms Hollander told this story with the help of her brother, the actor Tom Hollander, and her father, in 2019, in The Letter on Radio 3, available on BBC Sounds.)

Music, then, quite literally saved the lives of her family. She has early memories of singing with her grandparents. Her mother, a primary-school teacher, encouraged her musical interests, although her father, a biologist, had reservations about the security of music as a career (“After all, he’d been a refugee since he was three,” she says). She remembers with fondness the BBC’s weekly Singing Together programme for primary schools.

At seven, she started singing in the church choir — and loved it. A choral scholarship took her to Cambridge; and afterwards, even when her opera commitments meant a great deal of travel, she always found her way back to church and church music whenever she happened to be in London.

As a result, the English sacred choral repertoire is deeply embedded, and has become part of the way in which she reaches for God. Today, she sings week by week with the choir of the University Church in Oxford, and this is what keeps her hanging on to a spiritual life when the Church appears to be doing its worst (“Christianity is really hard,” she says).

In one chapter, “Heaven”, she explores the use of sung music in worship, contrasting her experiences of singing meditative Taizé chants with her godmother Christl in Vienna with a noisy celebration of the feast of the Assumption with the priestesses of the Candomblé religion in Bahia, in Brazil, and again with Sankirtana, a form of devotional singing (“a truly operatic kind of worship”) from Manipur, in the far north-east of India.

The approaches could not be more different. What do they have in common? “It is in naming the gods in song that you show devotion, and move into a prayerful, spiritual practice,” she says. English church music may not be as dramatic and exciting as Sankirtana, but it is still all about the search for transcendence.

“In what way does it offer a path to enlightenment?” she writes of singing Renaissance polyphonic sacred music. “Perhaps in those moments of exquisite tension where our voices vie against one another for acoustical space. Or when we pause for a moment, and hear our sound reverberating through the building, more spirit than body. I sense it in the long, melismatic phrases, not as florid as [in Sankirtana] but still with a sense of yearning that draws my heart heavenwards. And in those cadences where my alto line presses against the natural harmony of the other parts, and I feel my voice pushing outwards towards the cosmos, questioning.”

The book ends with a moving chapter on singing and death (“The Orpheus story teaches us how singing brings things together: how it can bridge two painfully incompatible forces, the need to love and the need to die,” she writes). Immie died as a teenager, and Ms Hollander describes how she sang to her in her last weeks, and also at her funeral. She says: “I think singing at the funeral of someone you love is the best way to say goodbye.”

We meet not long after the BBC has announced its plans to disband the BBC Singers. Music education appears to be under great threat; Singing Together has long since been axed, and she writes in the book about her own participation in the Sing Up! programme for primary schools, which lost its funding a decade ago. Some people still remain nervous of singing, post-Covid. What of the future?

“I have lots of hopes for why ordinary people will keep on singing, whatever the future holds,” she says. “And, fortunately, there are others who feel the same.” She points to the NHS Arts on Prescription programme, which is going from strength to strength.

“There is more and more collaboration between health professionals and musicians, acknowledging how cost-effective our art can be as a prescribed treatment. In the next couple of years, the number of link workers attached to GPs’ surgeries in England is set to quadruple, offering increasing opportunity for patients to choose group singing as part of their healing process.

“The new National Academy for Social Prescribing has laid out ambitious plans for dissolving the barriers between audiences and artists, which must surely lead to an increase in amateur choirs. It is a major cultural shift, and timely. The research data is in; we just have to get going, trusting our singing communities to keep us mentally and physically healthy.”

And finally, she suggests, we should take inspiration from the songbirds. “Down my street, the drills and the engines have returned with a vengeance, but the birds are still valiantly telling their stories, expanding on their riffs, testing out their mating and their nursing calls. They’re never going to stop singing; it’s too much part of their nature.”


Singing and Church

WHILE Ima and her fellow Sankirtana practitioners seem to relish physicality, we English make huge efforts to escape it. It is a serious dilemma: how to connect to the spirit world, distant and incorporeal as we imagine it to be, while using something so undeniably corporeal as our bodies. Even if we’re not dancing or drumming, we still have to contend with our red and gaping mouths.

The Church of England is by no means the only religious movement to get hung up on such issues, but as my country’s home brand I know a certain amount about it. I know, for example, that its founding fathers were so het up about the seductive physicality of singing that they made sure the original Book of Common Prayer contained no tunes.

If anyone insisted on adding music to the words, they were encouraged to do so in the most frugal fashion, one note per syllable, so as to avoid too much demonstrative emotion.

Like the whitewash masking the murals in our parish churches, there is still a characteristic cleanness to the vocal style. This is epitomised by our child singers, whose prepubescent voices are reassuringly free of the vibrations of nature that might draw attention away from Heaven, or worse still arouse the senses.

Compared to their more fulsome cousins on the continent, choristers in England aim to be vibrato-free, leaving any reverberation to the vast space of the building beyond. When I was young, it was only boys who were allowed to sing in the traditional chapels and cathedrals. This was due to the patriarchal roots of worship, but some also claimed it was because their sound was purer than girls’.

Towards the end of the 20th century, people started doing experiments to discover if this was really the case. It turned out, once they had their eyes closed, that even the most expert expert couldn’t tell the difference: mini XX was just as capable of disembodied sound as mini XY.

And did a surge in gender equality occur in choirs up and down the land? Well, over my lifetime many noble souls have campaigned and battled, and gradually the cathedral doors have creaked open. Girls now make up nearly half of all child choristers in England. One of whom is my daughter Bea.

She and I take great pleasure, singing amid Oxford’s dreaming spires. Whether it’s Tudor anthems or Taizé evenings, or Catholic masses, I am often surprised how much religious repertoire is being sung around my city, and not always by people of faith. In the university where secular disciplines and super-rational discourse are much valued, to sing devotional repertoire definitely doesn’t mean being a believer. You just have to be able to deliver.

Which is not so different from the Sankirtana philosophy of practice being the route to enlightenment. Where it differs is that the audience don’t have to believe anything either. Because, let’s face it, even an atheist can be a sucker for the transcendental.

The most notoriously vehement of Oxford University’s God deniers have been known to turn up at evensong. I have no problem with that. They love listening to the music. And while theologians may still be struggling to reconcile the corporeal with the incorporeal, the rest of us live in a world where religious practice is in severe decline. If it’s singing that gets the bums on pews, then bring it on.

This is an edited extract from Why We Sing by Julia Hollander, published by Atlantic Books at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.29); 978-1-83895-362-1.

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