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"I Believe In Singing" - Riffs and Licks — LiveJournal
"I Believe In Singing"
Brian Eno wrote an essay for the NPR series "This I Believe," which was broadcast this morning. Eno is probably the world's most famous electronic musician (meaning a player of electronic music, not a silicon-based musician). The majority of his work is instrumental music, often ambient. Many of his fans (including me) lament the lack of vocals in much of his work. And he wrote an essay beginning, "I believe in singing." Plain a capella singing.

And it makes perfect sense, really. His essay says nothing about the value of listening to singing, on CDs by other people. It's all about the value of singing. Not only is it beneficial physically ("You use your lungs in a way that you probably don't for the rest of your day, breathing deeply and openly") and psychologically ("Singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness"), he also discusses its "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.
He's absolutely right. I have been immersed in the bluegrass / traditional country music / old-time world for years now, and have almost entirely stopped going to the blues jams that a harmonica player more typically would be found at. Some of that has to do with my love of melody, but a lot of it has to do with the opportunities to sing. At first I was reluctant to sing, believing I wasn't "good enough," as so many people sadly do, but the more I did it the better it felt and the more I realized that the joy of it was not in being "good" but in being together.

He includes a recommended list of songs, many of which you could hear at any of our jams -- "Keep On the Sunny Side," "Sixteen Tons," "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" -- and others that would fit right in, like "Can't Help Falling In Love" or "Down By the Riverside." They're simple songs, based, as he says, "around the basic chords of blues and rock and country music." They are not only word-rich, with beautiful lyrics, but also rich in words with long vowels, where the harmonies really shine. "When you get a lot of people singing harmony on a long note like that, it's beautiful." These songs are indeed good to sing together, and not only that, they really aren't very hard. There are no complex scales or unintuitive harmonies. The choruses are usually brief and easy to remember. Generations of people have been able to sing and enjoy them, and that's why they're traditional American tunes.
I believe in singing to such an extent that if I were asked to redesign the British educational system, I would start by insisting that group singing become a central part of the daily routine. I believe it builds character and, more than anything else, encourages a taste for co-operation with others. This seems to be about the most important thing a school could do for you.
Thanks to my "new life" I have been able to spend a lot of time this year singing for days on end. One of my most transcendent experiences of the year was an unaccompanied gospel sing at Ashokan -- I am an avowed atheist but I'm also a believer -- in the spirituality of singing together, in community, in "the great social virtue" that Eno describes.

We all need more singing in our life.


6 comments or Leave a comment
rednoodlealien From: rednoodlealien Date: November 23rd, 2008 09:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
I love to sing.

[Edited to add:]
Appropriately, I'm just back from watching some YouTube of my friend Dana performing with her chapter of the lady singing group, Sweet Adelines [sp?].

I was in Glee Club [with Dana] in high school and I enjoyed it. I don't remember much of the great communal feeling you and Eno are talking about, but that figures, since I'm rather self-absorbed; or maybe I just don't remember it. What I love about singing is the physical and psychological aspects he describes - using my vocal apparatus in a way I don't usually do; and it's particularly empowering for me as a quiet and emotionally restrained person to belt things out and emote. I wish I were good at it. It is the one talent or ability to play a 'musical instrument' I most wish I possessed.

Edited at 2008-11-23 09:24 pm (UTC)
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: November 25th, 2008 04:55 am (UTC) (Link)
The belief that you aren't "good at it" is the main reason people don't sing. It's almost always not true, and to the extent that it is, it's often due to not being willing to sing out and sing with confidence. Anyone can sing, especially the kind of music Eno is talking about.

You're not going to get the great communal feeling with a singing group that isn't listening to each other and trying to become part of the "group consciousness" Eno talks about. I don't think very many high-school glee clubs achieve that or try to.

That said, I remember having some very strange conversations with you about harmony singing, so maybe that's part of it too.
rednoodlealien From: rednoodlealien Date: November 26th, 2008 12:05 am (UTC) (Link)
It's been my suspicion too that confidence is a large percentage of singing 'ability.' Cause man, I sound so great when I'm alone ;)

I'll ask Dana whether she ever got a communal high in the SJHA glee club.

Remind me offline what was ever "very strange" about our conversations about harmony singing.
harrietbrown From: harrietbrown Date: November 23rd, 2008 09:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
I got an invitation from the psych center's music therapist to sing at the Holiday Extravaganza and play the tambourine (and whatever instruments I could summon up). She was playing guitar and singing in the Food Pantry two weeks ago with my boss and I joined in and she said, "Hey, you're good! You should sing in our show!" Thus I was recruited. I go to my first rehearsal this Friday. I have to work on my breathing, though.

But I loved this entry ... adding to Memories!

Edited at 2008-11-23 09:24 pm (UTC)
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: November 25th, 2008 04:56 am (UTC) (Link)
That's great! Happy singing!
harrietbrown From: harrietbrown Date: November 25th, 2008 05:54 am (UTC) (Link)
Keeping this article in mind, this morning, the folks in Relaxation requested "John Denver Live" and quite a few people curled up into little comfortable balls in their chairs, but when "Country Roads" came on, people sat up and sang along. Normally, I would expend a lot of energy "shusshing" people, but today, I thought, "singing is healthy, let them sing." People stayed pretty much on key. There is only person who is not allowed to sing, because she doesn't sing (well, two, actually) they YELL VERY LOUDLY. Well, three that are like that. One of them is very well aware that she has a very loud voice. But the other two don't care. However, nothing went wrong, everything was copacetic, everyone enjoyed themselves, and it was all good, so thanks for the inspiration!
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