The recent articles in this newsletter have focused on artistic practices. In early January I wrote about the importance of playing a musical instrument. In mid-January, I wrote about the importance of clay modeling. In early February, I forgot to write an article at all, for which I sincerely apologize. So, here in late-February, I want to continue with this artistic thread and write about singing.
In one sense, you might think that this article will simply repeat the benefits of playing a musical instrument, more or less. I will not deny that singing is a musical activity and will naturally share some of the same qualities and benefits. However, I hope to clearly show how unique singing is, how it can be much more personal than playing an instrument.
Before I dive in, I am reminded of a joke that I will share with you. I do not regard myself as a great singer, but I really enjoy singing and, perhaps due to that alone, I have been the singer in a few different groups and bands. In my last band, which was a cover band (we played popular songs written by professional artists), the keyboard player turned to me during a rehearsal and said, "Hey Rev, do you know what singers and drummers have in common?" I was stumped, so he continued: "They both hang out with real musicians." Ha, ha, ha.
Fortunately, I have learned to laugh at myself and not take such things too seriously. It was funny as long as I held it the right way. I have developed an appropriately thick skin over the years. And I know that my friend was not being mean-spirited. No harm done.
On the one hand, there is some truth to the joke, at least in many cases. A singer, like me, can basically "fake it" as long as they can hold a tune. I do not have any vocal training. Likewise, there are plenty of drummers that rely on their coordination and their ability to hold a beat. They can, with some basic practice, hold the beat on a drum kit for a band. The other musicians, however, generally need to have a greater level of ability and knowledge to have any real value in a band.
On the other hand, we should make no mistake: there are vocalists and percussionists (notice I am not calling these singers or drummers) who are truly musical, have greater-than-normal abilities and knowledge, and may even have extensive training. These are true musicians--in the sense that my friend was using the term--and they would not fit the joke that my keyboardist friend had told.
So, with that little story completed, let me be very clear about the kind of singing I am going to discuss. I am talking about the kind of singing that every healthy person is capable of doing. I am not talking about advanced vocalization or vocal performance. We are going to look at singing as a natural human capacity and see how this simple activity--which we complicate too often for various reasons--can enhance our lives in many different ways.
I grew up attending a Christian church. So, we sang hymns in church every week. We sang songs in our youth groups. We sang songs at summer camps. I was even lucky enough to have teachers in the private and the public elementary schools I attended who taught us seasonal songs. I recognized that some people could sing really well and others not so much, but I never doubted that singing was something that everyone could do. In my limited experience, everyone did it. All around me, folks were singing. I felt fairly average in my ability to sing; so there was no illusion that I was gifted in that way. What I "knew" without consciously thinking it, was that singing was fun. It was a way to play, to enjoy tones, to experience feelings in relation to musical keys and lyrics, to find a rhythm and a harmony with other people. I experienced it connecting us on an emotional and social level--again, not in a conceptual way at that age, but in a way that just felt good.
It was not until high school that I learned that this was not an experience everyone shared. I learned that some people were too shy (or perhaps had too much trauma) to sing at all. I learned that some people firmly believed that they had "no singing voice at all". Later in life, I met a woman who had been told, at a young age, not to sing with the group, but instead to just mouth the words, because her voice was making the song sound bad. How harmful such a message can be to a human being, especially a young child!
Again, I still recognize that some people are natural singers and others are not as natural, but virtually every person has the ability to sing. I say "virtually" because I understand that some people have true impediments of one kind or another. Yet, these are rare. Most people have the ability to sing even if they are not great singers.
And this brings us to the factor that can trip us up in any art form, but perhaps more harmfully with singing: criticism. In the age of ubiquitous media presence, we can observe how thoroughly the culture of criticism has penetrated into the earliest ages of childhood. I shared the joke earlier because I wanted to return to it. My friend told that joke as one adult to another. I would never repeat that joke to a young person. The layers of sarcasm, criticism, insincerity, and ridicule that take a healthy and thick skin to keep out. Children usually lack this ability to filter. They do several things with this kind of negativity--even when it is cloaked as "just a joke". They internalize it, they react to it, and they imitate it. Even when human beings put on all the outward signs that they have not, we internalize things. Reactions can vary but few are the children who will react to negativity in a healthy way. Imitation is what children do, particularly where they see power. So, they emulate the same criticisms toward others, and sadly also toward themselves.
The person I mentioned earlier, the one who was told as a child to just mouth the words, had turned the criticism inward. She was a kind person and one who appreciated art forms, including singing and music, but she had lived a life believing that she had a "terrible voice". In her 70's, I must mention, she began singing with a group who was very supportive of her journey toward healing. It is never too late.
Still, can we learn from such an example about how important it is to start in the right way from the very beginning? When a child can have an early experience with music and singing, experiences that are positive and supportive, then that child begins life with more joy, more connection, more sense of wholeness.
Frogs and birds, howler monkeys and blue whales--even the Sumatran rhinoceros--so many creatures sing as part of their ways of living. We have created a false sense that singing is just an artistic activity that some people can choose to do. I urge us to re-examine this way of thinking and consider instead that singing is a natural human activity, one that enhances and supports our social and emotional well-being.
To riff on a line from a great singer-songwriter, John Lennon: I am NOT a dreamer and I am not the only one. There are many studies that support what I am saying. I encourage you to look at these links and read up on the wonderful benefits of singing.
Yes, when I attempt use my own voice to sing, it is an intimate activity, one that I could allow to be intimidating as well. Yet, when I just allow myself to sing with joy and warmth, I find others there to hear me and even to join in. Rather than think of singing as a performance, we can experience singing as a way to have fun and engage with others. In other words, like so many things in life, singing comes from the heart, not from the mind. The mind can be so quickly judgmental. The heart is so much warmer, so much more loving, accepting, and playful. The heart is what sings! When we learn to do this, we can share this with our young ones, and they can have the tremendous benefits from the very earliest stages of their lives!