A very long musical pause

2 Aug

Yesterday, I went to a church watch party. This is not, as my older sister suggested, a meeting where people compare wristwatches, but a social occasion when friends gather to watch the livestreamed church service together.

Although churches are allowed to meet in Scotland, my own church, Adelaide Place, is currently closed for refurbishment. I believe you are allowed to sing in church services now, behind your mask, but that’s a very recent development, introduced after my church closed, which means that yesterday was the first communal singing I had done in ages. And it was wonderful!

I don’t want to give you the impression that I am some fantastically musical person with an amazing singing voice (that’s my younger sister), nor that this particular group of four households (per regulations) was especially gifted at singing. I mean, there were some good singers among us, but we were all months out of practice and it was pretty wobbly at the start, with a lot of octave hopping. (Why are Christian songs always pitched for tenors? Probably because they are mostly written by tenors, but that’s not helpful for the rest of us. Fortunately, at that time in the morning I’m pretty much singing tenor anyway. In fact, straight out of bed, I’d probably give Barry White a run for his money.)

Despite the weakness of our voices, it immediately felt good to sing with other people, and as our voices warmed up, and more of us arrived, it felt really good. Harmonies filled the sunny, airy room and lifted us up on a musical wave.

It reminded me of other wonderful experiences of communal singing, and when I think about it, I have lots: Singing Lean on Me by an open window in St Andrews as part of the 24-Hour Choir, and passers-by stopping to listen. Doing Oceans in three parts with a couple of friends and occasionally nailing it, in-between laughter. Singing cheesy pop songs with debatable Christian undertones as part of the Gospel Choir at uni, with Dashing Dan on bass. Getting caught up in those intense harmonies at the end of O Holy Night outside a supermarket at Christmas with a virtual stranger. And that amazing feeling when the conductor draws out your last note to a close with a gesture, and there’s a moment of silence before the applause.

I don’t know if everyone gets a high from communal singing (feel free to comment below), but it the communal bit is definitely as important as the singing bit. During lockdown I recorded a piece for one of those virtual choirs that were all the rage, and while the end result sounded nice, singing alone into your smartphone is not a fun or uplifting experience – not for me, anyway.

It’s easy to see why singing is a feature of many religions, when doing it as a group gives you all the feels. There have been some in the Christian tradition who have been suspicious of music for that reason, afraid there was something pagan about it, something artificial about the effects it produces. But I think the sensation of group singing and the act of worship are a good match, which is why they’ve always gone together. Sometimes it is just the music you’re feeling, but often the music can shift you from through-the-motions to worship mode very effectively, and also instill a sense of community as you sing praise (or, indeed, sing lament) together. Anyway, God wants us to sing, so it’s all good.

At some point we will all be back in church and singing together, and I will doubtless not like some of the songs and may get a bit irritated. But for now, song-deprived as I am, I’m aware of how good it is to make a joyful noise, or any kind of noise, as long as we are making it together.

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