I began an adventure this past week, moving temporarily to a new city where I know almost no one, working in ways that require me to spend a lot of time alone. Like a lot of introverts, I don’t mind being alone, and I am blessed in never feeling lonely, but that isn’t to say I don’t enjoy all the daily interactions with others that I do have, in rehearsals and meetings and while exploring new places around me.
Author and social researcher Brene Brown has written and spoken, including most recently as the preacher at Washington National Cathedral, about loneliness as the greatest predictor of premature death – more than smoking or obesity. She was quoting from a British study that’s making the rounds and which has caused the British government to take notice about the health care costs of loneliness.
Church as antidote to loneliness is not a new idea, but to my delight Brown mentioned that singing with people she doesn’t know is one of the best reasons to go to church. She then turned to the Cathedral’s superb choir seated behind the pulpit and, getting a good laugh from everyone, said something to the effect that those particular strangers would do!
YES! a well-trained choir is there to sing with a congregation. Occasionally, at Evensong for example, they are singing on behalf of a congregation, but never instead of, and certainly not despite.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who loved music so much, believed singing in unison was the best way for a community to pray together. The clarity and purity of unison singing – even when it’s somewhat out of tune croaking from the least musically-inclined – for Bonhoeffer was the most joyful way to illuminate “the Word in its mystery.”
When voices come together in the words of a creed or in the tune and words of a hymn these are things which express the collective wisdom of many across time and place. Some can’t bring themselves to believe parts of the creeds we say, some cannot sing well…and yet these are still unison expressions of a community. Collectively we can believe the creeds, and collectively we can sing as one. Saying corporate prayers and singing in unison become the voice of the Church, not simply a collection of individual voices.
We need to know how to be alone as much as how to be in community, just as we need both self-sufficiency and human interactions in order to survive and to thrive. I believe that harmony and dissonance are as important to music as they are to social discourse, but as a musician I can say that it is training a choir to sing well in unison that is actually one of the hardest things there is to do. And I firmly believe that we are called on a regular basis to practice doing hard things.
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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.
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