Community Singing

Community singing remains one of the purest and strongest creative bonds that can be shared by groups of people. Even those (and especially those) who feel they ‘can’t sing’. Even those (and especially those) who were told to ‘stand at the back of the choir and mime’. Historically, we have always sung together, in some format or another, singing together is a great leveller; it strengthens community, forges new connections, it is good for our lungs and breathing, it nurtures our creativity and releases endorphins, which makes us feel fantastic!

The mute button

So why have we, as communities, become dispossessed of our voices? Through the passing of history, we, as communities of people living and working together, have lost our way a little in the art of singing together. What used to be a natural and ordinary part of everyday life for families, villagers and co-workers has become an activity to ‘attend’ (or avoid!) as something outside our everyday experiences.

Through the passing of history, we, as communities of people living and working together, have lost our way a little in the art of singing together

As a consequence of The Industrial Revolution, people no longer sat (or stood) to work together as artisans in the same way. Younger generations began to move to cities to work, so the extended family/community music making sessions became fewer. The printing press and the printed score inadvertently created a divisive attitude towards making music; those who ‘can’ and those who ‘can’t’ read music, and some cultural value judgments around that.

The advent of media, radio, TV and the technology to record meant that there was far less emphasis on making our OWN music together – why make it ourselves when we can listen to other people, ‘better’ singers…

Finding our voices

I am fascinated with, and very pleased about, the resurgence of popularity in singing together in the last 50 years. Through the work of trailblazers such as Frankie Armstrong and Venice Manley, who have been working to re-establish singing as a natural part of community life since the 1960s.

Even more recently, due to the mainstream success of people like Gareth Malone (although he is far from the perfect model of a community musician!) and society’s growing interest in singing as part of ‘reality’ media, the happy by product is that people are becoming curious, feeling the magnetic pull and rediscovering the palpable joy of community singing.

I love the nakedness, naturalness and normality – not to mention the ancestral history – of a group of people singing together

I am passionate about the natural voice and a founding member of the Natural Voice Network – a movement that seeks to re-establish singing in community, without judgement through audition, without a need for ‘formal’ training or the ability to read music, and with a passion to nurture the natural voice – the untrained, free voice that we speak with, and as a natural progression, sing with. I love the sound of people’s natural timbre as they sing, without affectation or inhibition and the raw power – and empowerment – that that holds. I love the nakedness, naturalness and normality – not to mention the ancestral history – of a group of people singing together. It’s our heritage and a simple tool for happiness!

Rhythm and roots

Using our voices musically – using pitch and rhythm to express ourselves – is a primal and fundamental part of ALL of us. We experience it at a cellular level BEFORE we learn words and language. We humans are hardwired to use pitch, rhythm and dynamics to express ourselves (with considerable subtlety) – none are so free with this as babies – this is what we mean when we say that SINGING IS YOUR BIRTHRIGHT!

However, we begin to lose the natural, beautiful music we instinctively make as babies, as we grow up – through socialisation, negative reinforcement from others (teachers, parents, peers, siblings) through a mortifying, existential teenage embarrassment, and through an unwritten perception that ‘we can’t read music so we are therefore ‘not musical’… Maybe that has been/is your script?

So with this in mind, here’s the deeper reflection: group singing, and in particular a cappella, harmony singing, is the perfect blueprint to building and bonding a positive community. It requires a profound and subtle sense of listening (different to everyday listening), a heightened and satisfying sense of teamwork, a healthy dose of altruism, and, to misquote Brian Eno, the ‘immersion of self into the community’!

I often reflect on two phrases that I explored many years ago in a workshop with Frankie Armstrong: ‘I am a vehicle for song’ as opposed to ‘the song is a vehicle for me’

I often reflect on two phrases that I explored many years ago in a workshop with Frankie Armstrong: ‘I am a vehicle for song’ as opposed to ‘the song is a vehicle for me’. Both are related to us as singers and artists, but the intent is diametrically opposed. When singing in community, we move into ‘the whole’ being more than the sum of the parts.

Harmony singing

On your own, you are simply singing some funky vocable like ‘dm dm daga’ or ‘kata kiri’ and goofing around making up a silly dance! But put that phrase with all the other phrases in the song, and something alchemical happens…

I often describe harmony singing as a Gestaltian experience. On your own, you are simply singing some funky vocable like ‘dm dm daga’ or ‘kata kiri’ and goofing around making up a silly dance! But put that phrase with all the other phrases in the song, and something alchemical happens; the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. We hear it happen. We feel the change in the air. The endorphins kick in, and the sense of being an integral part of creating something deeply musical, creative and damn good fun is a wildly satisfying, energising and empowering buzz.

So come on into the world of community singing…what’s not to love?!