“When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That's one of the great feelings - to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.” - Brian Eno
"Hi. Welcome. Come and join us."
You know those situations where you walk into a room full of people who all know each other, and you don't know any of them, and one of them says "Come and join us" and that's the very last thing you feel like doing, because Oh God! This is terrifying!
That was my first sing.
I'm not sure what got me there in the first place. I needed a change, I needed to meet some new people. I was house-husbanding with a baby and not much freelance work to do, and not much time to do that little that I had, and frankly I was getting bored.
A poster caught my eye.
"Sing in the round!" it chorused. "Sing for the fun of it!"
Despite 25 or more years of la-la-la level singing, I was stirred by it, made a phone call, and went along. Found myself in front of that room full of people, nervously stepping in among them.
I didn't know I'd love it.
When was the last time you sang out loud?
I don't mean just an idle hum in the shower or a quick hum while driving the car. I mean a full-on, full-throated, full-volume sing. A time when your attention was centred on the act of singing. Just singing.
For many adults, when they stop and think about it, the answer to the question is "when I was a kid."
Children embrace singing as an activity in its own right. Parents too, but usually only an activity for their children, not for themselves.
The older you get, the less you sing. Before you know it, you've got kids and your first grey hairs and the best you can manage is a quick la-la-la when a song you like comes on the radio.
You really need to do something about that.
It's not just me that thinks so. Brian Eno doesn’t just like singing, he believes in singing. It's hard to understand what he means until you actually commit to the act, until you open your mouth and take a breath inwards and exhale with volume. Singing stirs muscles within. It exercises the mind, forcing you to concentrate on the notes and the spaces between them. The ears, too: you listen to yourself, and you listen to your companions.
The companions are important. You can sing on your own and enjoy it, but singing with others forces you to trust them, to open up to them, to feel comfortable enough to make a fool of yourself in front of them. Strong new friendships were formed within that group. You can know someone intimately by knowing their voice, learning as they learn, swapping a delighted look with your eyes when both of you hit the right harmonic notes at exactly the right moment. That incredible sound - you're making that, the two of you. The ten of you. The 50 of you. Like lovers, you share a bond that's physical and tender, something you both have to work for, something you both enjoy more when you both get it just right.
Walking through the door for that initial terrifying moment of exposure in front of a crowd, I made the newbie singer's classic mistake. I stood in the wrong place.
I had no idea that the group was divided into sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. I stood at the front of the altos, because there was a Giles-sized gap I could squeeze into and it seemed to be the least conspicuous place for a newcomer. It was comfortingly close to a large concrete pillar, which might be useful to hide behind.
Then wham, we were straight into it. They tore through a few favourites by way of a warm-up. I had no idea what to do. I tried listening out for choruses and repeated notes, and sang along with them when I could. There were no words on paper, no sheets of music (not that sheet music would have helped, I can't read it). Our leader sang at us, and we sang back. If it’s not quite right, repeat until it is. Line-by-line. Song-by-song. You can learn two or three new songs in an evening, and sing them to yourself all the way home on your bike.
I was hooked from the first harmonies. I was part of this.
When you sing with a group, you can concentrate and pick out individual voices around and behind you - but mostly, you’re listening to the single voice of the group. The voice that is the song. Brian Eno’s right (he is about most things), it’s not just the sound you make, it’s the immersion of self. You are part of the song as much as part of the group. The tangible sensations you get in your spine and the hairs on the back of your neck are the side-effects of the group working together. Empathy as electricity.
Twenty-something me would have been horrified at what 40-something me was doing.
Then again, twenty-something me was a jerk. Or as we would say here in the UK, a bit of a prat. He was an arrogant, cocky know-it-all who thoroughly deserved to be taken down a few pegs. He was a dedicated indie kid, a devoted fan of the best alternative music the 80s and 90s had to offer. He was that kid who queued up outside the record store the day the second Ride album came out. The kid who had to get every Cocteau Twins album and complete the set. The kid who spent more time thinking about music than studying, who spent more money on music than on food, who generally spent the best part of his time at college mucking about and being an idiot.
That kid would have despised this singing group.
For a start, he'd have hated them as people, because they're predominantly middle-aged, grey-haired, past it. The older generation. A different planet.
And he'd have hated what they're singing. Classical music, choral music, anything that wasn't indie pop noise pollution. It was the stuff he skipped on tape recordings of Peel shows. Ugh.
But here, 25-ish years later, he is me and I'm singing this stuff and I cannot believe the physical reaction I'm having as I sing. It's spine-shivering stuff and not in the same way as those mid-period Cocteau Twins albums. The shivers are caused by something else.
I don't enjoy all the songs. After a few years of regular singing during school term-time, some of them start to get dull. But they're a minority, and the good stuff retains its ability to tingle the spine even on the 100th or 1000th sing. The Eastern European stuff is challenging, the harmonies within it unusual and harder to learn, but the results spectacular, and more rewarding for bass singers than most bom-bom-bom bass lines.
One of my favourites was an old English song called Hail smiling morn. Composed in the 1800s, it sounds much older. We sang it like we were sitting outside an inn, clutching tankards of ale in one hand and pipes of tobacco in the other. The happy Shire scenes in The Hobbit - yes, just like that. It's the kind of song Hobbits would sing. We sang it like that, and we loved it.
It has delicious depth to its bass notes - not too low to put them out of range, but low enough to feel the rumble in your chest. When a group of men sing it, the rumble fills the air around and between them. Standing at the front, which as one the shorter members I often did, I'd get the benefit of hearing my companions booming behind me. When you can hear that you're all singing it right, that no-one's fluffed a note or missed a beat, the boom becomes a shroud, a blanket. As a lover would, it holds you close and tight. Your ears hear the soundwaves, but they echo through the rest of your body too. Your chest cavity, your skull, your fingertips.
You don't just *sing*, you *feel* singing. It goes through you, and leaves something behind. You don't need to ask Eno, take it from me. Look for a you-sized gap you can squeeze into at the front of a group of singers, and use those ears and those lungs like limbs. As the music touches you, touch back.