It happened again. In the aftermath of unimaginable horror, people sang.
A similar scene played out after the Charlie Hebdo attack earlier this year when, following a moment of silence, the French National Assembly spontaneously broke into “La Marseillaise.”
And many of us will never forget the sight, on September 11, 2001, of members of the U.S. Congress singing “God Bless America” on the steps of the Capitol.
It is a testament to the power of music that singing is associated with some of our most significant human activities. We sing to our babies to lull them to sleep. As they grow, we use music to teach them their ABC’s. We almost universally mark the passing of another year by singing “Happy Birthday” to the one who is celebrating. We sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” when someone succeeds, “Auld Lang Syne” to welcome a new year, and our national anthem at sporting and political events. Many of us attend houses of worship where singing is a central means of proclaiming God’s word. History is full of stories of human beings singing in times of both celebration and trial. We sing when we’re happy, and we sing when we’re sad.
Or do we? Here in the twenty-first century it seems clear that corporate singing is declining and has been doing so for a long time. It is ironic that the culture that spawned “American Idol” and all its wannabes is finding fewer occasions for the average person to actually sing.
Then again, maybe it’s not ironic at all. We are no longer people who sing; we are people who want to be sung to, and maybe, occasionally, to sing along. We have lost our collective voice and much else as a result.
From Singing to Being Sung To
In 2006 a documentary entitled “The Singing Revolution” was released to critical acclaim. It tells the true story of how the nation of Estonia used corporate singing to peacefully resist and ultimately put an end to decades of Soviet control.
Could such a thing happen today in the United States? Considering how hard-pressed many of us are to get through the national anthem without stumbling, I kind of doubt it. As with most singing that goes on these days, the great mass of us are more inclined to listen than to join in. The sort of freestyle, soloistic rendition that has become the custom doesn’t invite participation, anyway.
Why are we singing so much less these days? Certainly there is more than one reason, but I think a huge cause is the ascendance of recorded music. Just as the world of high fashion and celebrity provide models of the human form that bear little resemblance to real life, the recording industry regales us with musical products engineered and polished to such perfection that the amateur singing of which most of us are capable seems rather pointless. We look at singing as something one must have a gift for, rather than something that most people do. We hesitate to lift a voice that isn’t microphone-ready. We consume rather than contribute.
That is a terrible shame. There was a time that music was a core part of most school curriculums. That time is rapidly disappearing. There was a time people who had gathered socially would often sing together around the piano. Now, if there’s even a piano in the house, there’s little chance that someone actually knows how to play it.
There was a time that people in corporate worship could hear their own voices and those of the people on their left and right; now, in services that increasingly resemble rock concerts, it can be hard to hear anything over the amplified voices and raucous drumming of the worship band. There was a time we taught our children not just the alphabet song but folk songs like “Oh, Susanna” and “Home on the Range.”
As a piano teacher, I have frequently been surprised to discover that my young students don’t know these kinds of songs, which I remember learning in my elementary public school music classes. But why should I be surprised? Where music programs still exist in schools these days the content increasingly consists of radio and pop music, not the art, folk, and patriotic songs that were once taught.
American entertainment icon Carol Burnett used to end her television show each week by singing these words: “I’m so glad we had this time together just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started and before you know it comes the time we have to say ‘So long.’” Burnett’s variety show and others like it reflected a practice that is not unique to twentieth-century America.
Throughout history human beings have come together to sing, laugh, and tell stories to one another. Part of the appeal of the variety show was the feeling that the people on the stage could just as easily be your neighbors coming over to hang out for a while. There was a coziness to it that is lacking in its closest modern counterpart, the talent show. I don’t think it is an accident that the variety show’s demise coincides with the decline in group singing.
Let’s Not Lose Our Voice
I don’t know if variety shows will ever make a comeback. But I do know that as a culture we need to find our voice again. Study upon study shows the physical, psychological, emotional, and social benefits of singing.
But beyond the benefits to the individual, there are benefits to the culture—to our shared experience as citizens of a country and members of the human race. When we sing together we tap into something larger than ourselves. There is a reason oppressed people throughout history have sung and that oppressors discourage and even forbid singing. There is a reason God commanded His children to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19) and that Martin Luther said, “He who sings prays twice.”
To sing with others is to take part in something akin to breathing: the song goes out from our lips, mixes with that of our fellow singers, and returns enriched through our ears to fortify us for even more singing. It is an exponentially soul-feeding endeavor.
Christmas Is the Perfect Time to Start
If you want to re-introduce or increase singing in your own life, there is no better time to do so than right now during the Christmas season. You may not know all the words to “Home on the Range” or “God Bless America,” but I bet you know the words to “Silent Night.”
Even people who don’t really believe that baby in the manger was the Son of God find themselves wanting to sing at this time of year. During any other month the act of showing up at your neighbor’s door to sing would elicit a raised eyebrow; in December it has a good chance of being met with a smile and maybe even an invitation to come in and sit a spell. So grab some friends, hit the streets (or maybe the office hallway), and do some caroling. And when the new year comes, consider one or more of the following additional suggestions for rediscovering the joy of singing.
If you are a parent, have your children sign up for music classes at school and put them in your church’s children’s choir. Make it required, not optional, for them to sing, in the same way that you require them to learn their times tables and go to Sunday school. Teach them that music is as essential a part of their education as any other subject and that singing in the choir is a way for them to serve their neighbor. Then support their choir, and its director, in whatever way you can.
If your church and school don’t have a children’s choir, see if there’s a community children’s choir in your area. Don’t be intimidated by the word “audition.” Most children’s choirs are dedicated to helping any child who wants to sing do so, and the auditions are more for placement than acceptance.
Join a church or community choir yourself. Most church choirs, and many community choirs, don’t require an audition other than for the director to figure out what section to put you in. Don’t worry if you can’t read music. You will be amazed at what you are able to tell about the music from paying attention to whether the notes go up or down and are empty or filled in. Go to rehearsal with a willingness to learn and a positive attitude, and don’t be surprised when you get asked to do that first solo.
Take voice lessons. Very few people in the world are truly tone-deaf. Singing is a skill that can be taught. Certainly there are people who have greater aptitude or a God-given voice with a particularly appealing quality. But the rest of us with our average-sounding voices can learn to use them to great reward if we only try. If you aren’t sure where to find a voice teacher, ask your musically inclined friends or call up your local community college music department, which is usually hungry for increased enrollment.
Make Occasion for Singing
Get a karaoke machine. Have a party. Invite your friends. Sing your hearts out. Learn an instrument. It’s never, ever too late.
Foster a culture of singing together in your family. Play quality choral music around the house. When you go on long car rides, require everyone to disconnect from their devices for a while and sing together. If the songs you learned growing up have faded from your memory, buy a CD of folk or patriotic music to help you get started. One of my favorite resources as a homeschooling parent is “I Hear America Singing,” a songbook and CD set with such favorites as “On Top of Old Smoky,” “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” and “The Cat Came Back.”
Sing in church, sing in the shower, sing in the car, sing to those you love, sing alone. Open your mouth and let it rip. Remember what you learned all those years ago on Sesame Street:
J.M. Barrie, author of “Peter Pan,” said, “If you cannot teach me to fly, teach me to sing.”
This article is dedicated to all the music teachers I have been blessed to learn from and work with over the past 45 years, and to all music teachers everywhere who work hard every day to help the world find its voice.