Want to make new friends, exercise your brain and memory and reduce stress? All these health and well-being benefits come from something simple, practical and ageless: singing with others. In her beautifully researched and eloquent book, Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing With Others, author Stacy Horn chronicles her 30 years with the Choral Society of Grace Church in New York City and how singing makes hers and all of our lives so much happier and healthier.
"Music brings us together," writes Horn. "Singing is the ultimate communion." It is also a life-sustaining physical and spiritual practice that has well-documented benefits. Perhaps that's why over 32 million adults sing in choirs in the U.S. and when you include children, it's more than 42 million. Why does singing feel so good?
Horn notes that no matter how anxious, weary or stressed she and chorale mates are before rehearsal, afterwards they always feel so much better. A recent NPR article notes that when people sing together their hearts actually beat in unison. If community singing calms the heart, deepens the breathing and strengthens connections, what else can it do for us?
Singing brings us together and teaches us about teamwork. Beyond religion and politics --those things that so often divide us -- singing is all about listening to each other so intently that you discover "the blend" of perfect harmony. Her volunteer community choir has sustained Horn through depression, broken engagements, deaths of loved ones and even a stay in rehab. "When you sing you cannot be sad for long," she says. In this interview, Horn offers a glimpse into her graceful and generous book and why you must, "Sing with as much sweetness and tenderness as you can muster. Nothing less than eternity is at stake."
Can you tell a story about singing and healing yourself?
One year, in the space of a few months my mother died, my cat died and yet another relationship ended. I was singing the Brahms' Requiem when we got to the line "Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit," which translates to, "Yet the word of the Lord speaks for all time."
I'm agnostic, so strictly speaking, I don't know if there is a Lord or if his word lives forever. But when you sing, as opposed to listen, you become what you sing. So I became Brahms' Requiem. Brahms wrote a musical line to communicate forever and the possibility that death is not the end, and when I sang it I felt it and believed it. It's an extremely triumphant moment in the piece. It surged through me from head to toe, transforming my grief to the hope that bursts forth in those measures. From that day forward, every day I felt a little better.
You are charmingly self-effacing about your own voice and say, "It's not so great." What advice do you have for others who might be afraid they're "not good enough" to sing in a community?
Not being the greatest singer may work in your favor. There was a study, "Does Singing Promote Well-Being?" which found that amateur singers experienced a heightened sense of joy and well-being following singing lessons. Whereas, professionals did not. When singing is not your profession, you can sing just for the joy of it.
Did you listen to music as you wrote? What did you listen to?
No. I need quiet to write, except for the sound of birds, cars, trucks and jackhammers outside my window, which after many years of city living are "nature" sounds to me now, and are soothing.
As a second soprano myself, I adored your discovery of singing rich harmonies. Can you talk about how seeking harmony and "the blend," affect other elements of your life?
I live my life the way I sing, going back and forth between the first and second soprano voice parts. Sometimes I do what I can to make sure my voice stands out on top, like a first soprano. But more often I go for the middle, where my voice is one of many. This is where I prefer to be. Maybe it's not such a good idea professionally, but like singing, it's a lot more fun in the middle. You don't feel the harmony as much on top, and the harmonies are the best part both in life and in singing. That said, the top feels pretty damn good at times. It's wonderful to have opportunities to sing, or live, both.
I loved the virtual choir link. Do you believe that singing together can change the world?
It's already does every day. There are countless examples large and small. From people singing after 9/11 and the recent bombings in Boston to this dramatic example where the people of Estonia used music as a tool to demand freedom.
You have extensive source notes on each chapter. Do you have any links you'd like to add, perhaps to recordings or your chorale you'd like to share with readers?
I created a Spotify playlist of the music I wrote about. And for those who don't use Spotify, I have a page of links to YouTube videos on my blog.
Brenda Peterson is the author of 17 books, including the recent memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind, selected as a "Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year" by The Christian Science Monitor. Her new novel is The Drowning World.
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