12/27/2013 02:32 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2014

Singing Through the Storms: We Will Be a Shelter for Each Other

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A life-changing storm inspired Eric Whitacre's "Cloudburst," sung by the Virtual Choir Live. In 1991, Whitacre's college choir had stopped to rest near a pristine mountain lake in Northern California. The human choir was silent, listening to crickets, baritone frogs croaking, and bright birdsong. As massive clouds shadowed the valley, all the animals suddenly stopped singing.

"There was this electric hush," Whitacre explains, "as if they could sense what was going to happen."

Now, it was nature's turn to sing. Thunder rumbled with its resonant claps, rain slashed the valley, as the storm took possession of lake, earth, and singers--human and animal. You can hear percussive rain and snapping crickets in the Virtual Choir's harmonies. You can hear the rhythmic power in "Cloudburst's" lyrics, from Octavio Paz's poem: We must sing, til the song // Puts forth roots, // Branches, birds, stars

Listening to the Virtual Choir Live--4,000 singers strong, from 73 countries--I was reminded of how the whole world is sound and vibration. We humans never sing alone. Many other species are singing right alongside us: Birds chirp to declare territory and attract mates, elk herds trumpet, elephants rumble in sub-sonic infrasound to find their herds, and humpback whales pass down haunting lullabies to their calves. Many animals, like us, sing simply for the joy of it.

I was reminded of how the whole world is sound and vibration. We humans never sing alone. -- Brenda Peterson

"How can I keep from singing?" the traditional spiritual asks. How, indeed, when we can sing our parts not only in a virtual choir, but also an interspecies symphony of sound? Science echoes this sound communion by citing the recent discovery that when a choir sings together, our hearts beat in unison. We are like living tuning forks resonating with each other and the natural world.

For the past three decades I've studied whale and dolphin vocalizations. As a National Geographic author, even when I'm not in the field, I can sit at my desktop computer and don headphones to listen to OrcaLive. Astonishing orca whale harmonies are broadcast from a remote research station in British Columbia, every time the resident orcas cruise past Orca Lab hydrophones in their super-pod reunions. Every summer solstice in Washington's San Juan Islands, the City Cantabile Choir gathers on the shore for OrcaSing--and the orca pods almost always come to add their ultrasonic harmonies. I also love listening to naturalist musician Jim Nollman's duets with wolves, orcas, and belugas, those melodic "canaries of the sea."

Here on my Seattle home beach, every winter solstice, neighbors gather for a bonfire to greet the ferry boats strung with red and gold lights. As music from the Christmas boats is carried across the Salish Sea, we join in, singing, "Gloriaaaaa," in perfect synch with the surf. I always wonder if sea lions raise their whiskered snouts to listen and bark along to our glad song. Do jellyfish and seal pups float a little easier near our shores because we're singing to them? Is there a symbiosis between nature, other animals, and ourselves when we sing together? Can sound actually help us heal our natural world and ourselves?

Brain researcher, musician, and sound healer Tom Kenyon has created a three-minute song meditation to help heal the radioactive waters around Fukushima. Grammy nominee Jonathan Goldman has long pioneered sound harmonics in CDs like "Dolphin Dreams," that use dolphin vocalizations to ease birthing mothers. Sound healing may be the medicine and ecology of the future.

As with the animals, our singing with others teaches us about survival and finding community. For the past ten years, I've sung my mezzo-soprano part in a volunteer community choir, the Seattle Metropolitan Glee Club. One of our signature songs is "The Storm Is Passing Over," an ageless spiritual. Storms have inspired much of our music. A small ensemble of Seattle's Earthrise Chamber Choir is singing this season the tender lyrics of "We Will Be a Shelter for Each Other." This was written after Hurricane Ivan in 2005 destroyed thousands of homes in Pensacola, Florida. Listen to children and adults sing its soaring refrain: "When we come together, we'll be home."

Finding a harmonious home when we blend our voices and when we listen and sing our parts in synch with the natural world--this is the healing power of communal singing. When we sing together, we give more to each other than shelter in any storm. As Stacy Horn advises in "Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing With Others"--"Sing in a choir. It's one of the dependable routes to happiness."

So why not sing together, whether in a virtual choir, with community singers, other animals, or simply on your own Sound Cloud channel? Here's an idea for Whitacre's next Virtual Choir. His chorale music, like "Cloudburst" and "Water Night," is so inspired by storms and water. Perhaps his next Virtual Choir will also include nature sounds, like our rising seas and animal songs? I can just hear it: the syncopation of dolphin whistles, the echolocation of voices all around the world blending beautifully via a virtual portal--all hearts beating together. As Paz's poem concludes, we must remember, "what the blood, the tides, the earth, and the body say." One song, all voices. Ensemble.

Brenda Peterson is the author of 17 books, including "Singing to the Sound, Build Me an Ark: A Life With Animals," and the memoir "I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth," which was selected as a Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year by The Christian Science Monitor.

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