Yesterday I sang with my church choir for the first time in a long while and it felt good. I had forgotten how uplifting it is to sing beautiful songs in unison with others. I’ve sang with many choirs over the years, starting with a school choir in high school and moving onto community choirs in London and Perth. But it was only a few years ago that I joined a church choir for the first time.
I was brought up a Catholic but didn’t practice for many years once I left home. It was when I decided I wanted a church wedding that I found myself back in the fold. For me, getting married in a church was as important as the party afterwards. Churches have always been a place of sanctity for me. Even during my most rebellious years, no matter where I was in the world, I often found sanctuary in an empty church. Sometimes I would go there to just sit quietly and reconnect with myself, other times I would go in search of solace when I found myself struggling with life’s arrows. And it’s worth noting that it wasn’t always a Catholic church either. I have never discriminated. All places of worship have a similar vibe for me and offer their visitors the chance to step out of the crazy concrete jungle for a moment and into a place of peace and serenity.
‘I do’ in a special place
Getting married was one of the most important things I have ever done and, it was only fitting that it happened in a place where people go to acknowledge all that is divine about the universe. We were lucky to tie the knot in one of the most special churches in the world, the nineteenth century St Finnbarr’s Oratory, located on a little islet at the heart of Gougane Barra lake in southern Ireland. It is surrounded by hills and woodlands that add to the magic of the place. There is something spiritually uplifting about the sound of soulful music playing in a church that has a peaceful interior and decent acoustics. We were blessed to have a very talented and deeply spiritual singer, Noreen, perform for us and how lovely that she is family too. My father told me afterwards that one of the hymns we had chosen for the ceremony was his all-time favourite, Queen of the May and had brought back some lovely memories for him. Music does that, doesn’t it.
A family that sings together, stays together
Then came the baptisms, the first holy communions and the confirmations of our children which meant we were participating more and more in church life. When we were asked as a family to be founding members of a new choir that was being established by our lovely Filipino priest, Fr Andrew, how could we refuse. Our local church is named after the patron saint of music, St Cecilia. Our kids were already showing a talent for music at school and it felt like a natural thing to do as a family. Singing hymns became our way of praying, of giving thanks for our lives, of acknowledging the wonder of the universe and getting closer to God through our connection with others.
God for me represents the higher, purer power that we each have within us, that brings all humanity together. I’ll be honest, I don’t relate to everything that is written in the Bible and do not live my life according to the scriptures. I believe parts of the Bible are outdated and harmful and would prefer a more realistic approach to be taken when it comes to the Gospel. This would be less likely to drive people away from the church, which is unfortunately what is happening in many cases. In living our lives with the higher power in mind and our connection to one another, we can be kinder, more humble, more forgiving and more loving. I believe this is what spirituality is all about and sadly, it’s a meaning that gets lost in translation and diluted by man’s selfish desires. When I sit in a church, present and open, I do not think about the horrendous crimes that are committed in the world. Nor do I allow the establishment that covered up these crimes to drive a wedge between me and God. The church is ours to enjoy, paid for by donations from parishioners, and we mustn’t let the negative get in the way of our peace and harmony.
So, when Faith, my soprano sister, stood up alone yesterday to sing Ave Maria, I didn’t expect my reaction to be so dramatic. Within moments of her voice pouring over the congregation, my skin tingled, and tears welled up. I watched the expression on her face that showed each note as it left her body. Her eyes were closed, gently, and her brow was smooth and her whole body looked as though it could float into the air. Her voice was strong and kept her grounded, yet it sounded like smooth, melted chocolate. It evoked in me a feeling of deep connection with humanity as though I was feeling their pain and their joy all at once. While Faith was singing, the picture I have used to illustrate this blog was projected on the wall. In looking into the face of this woman, I see a gentle and fragile soul with a heart that radiates warmth and love for everyone. There is a part of her in every human being. When I congratulated Faith on her performance, she humbly replied ‘I have been blessed by God and am humbled to be allowed to share it with everyone.’ Afterwards I thought about Schubert and how spiritually enlightened he must have been to be able to compose such a deeply touching piece of music. I looked him up when I got home and wasn’t at all surprised to read the young composer grew up singing in the choir of the imperial court chapel in Vienna. By the time he was 19, he had already composed four complete settings of the Catholic Mass text.
Music and the soul
It’s hard to describe with words what music does to me, but I will try. When I hear certain pieces of music such as Ave Maria, I feel as though every part of my being is switched on. My spirit is awakened, my breathing becomes deeper and I feel at one with my surroundings. More often than not, I get goosebumps all over. I feel as though I matter, that I am connected. Whether that connection is with the artist or composer, I don’t know. It’s probably more a connection with the universe. The feeling transcends anything my mind or body is capable of. It’s a blissful state where I am free of doubt and fear. I get the same feeling when I am standing by the ocean, listening to the crashing and rumbling of the waves as they wash onto the shore. The number of hymns and songs that can evoke such feelings are too numerous to mention here, but I would urge you to listen to Cantate Domino composed by Monteverdi, performed by the Singapore Youth Choir with guest conductor Ko Matsushita. The power of the collective voice is astounding. It offers hope to those who are suffering and humility to those who are not.
I realise that my feelings around places of worship may not resonate with everyone. But I’m sure most will agree that singing is good for the soul. Evidence abounds regarding the benefits of being in a choir. And don’t despair if you believe you can’t sing because according to one expert in the field, ‘Everyone who can speak can learn to use a singing voice,” says Joanne Rutkowski, a professor of music education. ‘The quality of the voice is dependent on many factors; however, barring a physical vocal disability, everyone can learn to sing well enough to sing basic songs.’
Top ten benefits of singing in a choir
All backed up by research:
- Strengthens immune system
- Enhances psychological wellbeing
- Uplifts the spirit
- Lowers stress levels
- Allows us to connect with others
- Improves concentration
- Helps with sleep
- Improves posture
- Stimulates the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain
- Improves lung function
There will be ample opportunity for us all to experience the joy of music during the festive season and I will make sure I make the most of it. I am looking forward to singing along and reminding myself that there is so much more to our lives than we can see or touch.
Martin Luther said,
Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us.
Happy singing everyone.