I came across this very short article by the well-known composer and musician Brian Eno. It’s called Singing: The Key to a Long Life. I usually can’t pass up any article that claims to hold the key to a long life – because we’re all pretty fond of living, aren’t we? Eno talks about the weekly singing group he started, and the benefits of singing – and it made me realize how little singing I do in my life now, how much a part of my life it once was, and how much I miss it.
And it made me think about Christmas.
Sundays for me, for most of my life, always involved singing: Methodist hymns on my dad’s side, Lutheran hymns on my mom’s, which my father always grumbled about because “they sing every damn verse and no one knows the tune.” My dad loves to sing, and for a few years, when I was in high school, we were both in the same church choir, which made me very happy. I love to hear him sing – and he likes to really belt out the hymns he knows. And I agree with him about the unsingable and endless Lutheran hymns. (And don’t even get me started on what I have heard passing for hymns in some Catholic churches!) I have become, like him, an unapologetic Methodist hymn snob.
For all of my junior and senior high school years, I sang in the school choir and the church choir, which meant that Christmas was wall-to-wall rehearsals. Add in the Spanish and French club caroling night, caroling at the local nursing homes, and singing carols at the top of my lungs with my friends on school buses, in cars, or walking home, and I’m pretty sure that, in December at least, singing was a daily activity.
After choir rehearsals in the cold Decembers of north-western Pennsylvania, I would walk out of the church, or the school, into a deep black night with sharp pin-points of stars above and the snow squeaking under my feet as I walked home feeling very alive, the space inside my head buzzing and clear. All was right with the world.
It’s not that I was a great singer. I’m not even a good singer. But I am good in a group. With people singing in my ear, I can hold down my part there in the alto section, do all that un-diva-y grunt work. I can fill out those chords, not stick out, not hit wrong notes, swell the chorus, and be happy. But I have trouble carrying a tune on my own – a fact that was sadly uncovered at the end of my freshman year in college, when, to move on to the sophomore choir, you had to audition for the choir director – a cappella. Well, I knew where this was going before I entered that little rehearsal room, the silent piano useless to me, the choir director reading the cold fear in my eyes. I grew up in a very small town. Everyone who showed up could be in the choir – they took what they could get, highlighted the good singers, and welcomed the rest of us to fill things out. I was in far more discriminating company in college, and I couldn’t cut it. I was unmasked and kicked out of an activity that had brought me a lot of joy. And it was a big loss. Because I like to sing. (In my next life, this is what I want: a big beautiful voice and big curly red hair – think: Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters).
After being black-balled from the Smith choir, it was another decade before I found a singing home in the Chelsea Community Church’s Christmas choir in New York. By luck, Dave and I had found this quirky little lay-led church a block away from our apartment, in a city in which many churches actually have professional singers in their choirs. Chelsea Community Church, on the other hand, was a very small church. They didn’t even have a regular choir, but pulled one together at Christmas for their big candle-light carol service, which packed the church full one night a year. (CCC met in St. Peter’s, an Episcopal church built on land donated by Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote the classic Christmas poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” A reading of this poem, by a well-known actor if we could get one, was always a feature of the service.)
The music director, John, and one of the original church founders, Thad, were both music lovers with big Christmas ambitions, and were grateful for anyone who would sign up. Dave is a wonderful singer, and I have many friends who are wonderful singers – we pulled them into the choir, which made the music director very happy, and the rehearsals and the service became for all of us, one of our favorite parts of the holidays.
Once a week, from the middle of November on, we all crowded into the living room of Thad’s lovely, dishabille townhouse with peeling ceiling and submitted to John’s stern tutelage – and his very ambitious music selections. John had the vision of a music director for St. Patrick’s Cathedral, harnessed to a Charlie Brown-sized, ragtag assembly of the vocally gifted, the teachable, and the tone-deaf.
We all came to Thad’s straight from our jobs. Rushed, harried, mad at our bosses, cursing our dumb idea to volunteer, yet again, for this choir when we had too much to do, hadn’t started Christmas shopping, and just wanted to be home commiserating with Rudolph, Hermie, and a glass of red wine.
Then we’d walk in the door. Thad would have cider and cookies for us. We’d take off our coats and mufflers and hats and put down our briefcases, we’d squeeze into our seats, pick up our music folders, John would play the intro, and we’d start to sing. And suddenly everything else went away. The most pressing issue was making your voice repeat the notes John played. You weren’t staring at a computer screen, or talking to a client on the phone – your job was to collaborate, blend in, support, using your breath, your voice, your brain in a completely different way than you did in any other part of your life.
It was physical, cooperative, collaborative – and it took total concentration. It became for me like some sort of active meditation in the way it required one-pointed attention. And it was like yoga in the way it forced me to concentrate on my breathing. And it was like a big team-building exercise without the stupid props, and with a real goal. I felt better after rehearsal – like there was more room in my head. I was outward-focused, part of a group, and I’d spent a couple of hours using a part of my brain that was probably pretty dormant most of the time.
And I remembered this feeling when I read what Brian Eno wrote:
Well, there are physiological benefits, obviously: You use your lungs in a way that you probably don’t for the rest of your day, breathing deeply and openly. And there are psychological benefits, too: Singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness. And then there are what I would call “civilizational benefits.” When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings — to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.
Yes. That. That is how I felt, and I want to feel that again. So, this Christmas, I’m going to find a church here in Nice, and I’m going to go sing some hymns. If I’m lucky, they will be the old chestnuts. And even if they’re not — not chestnuts or maybe not even in English — I’m going to sing them loud. I might even try the harmonies.