Essay: This is why we sing

By Patrick Coleman

This essay was originally published in July 2015 on ClassicalMPR.org.

The 2015 Summer Singers ensemble.

The 2015 Summer Singers ensemble.

Perhaps it's an outlet. Maybe it heals you. It could give you a sense of awe, or allow you to grieve. It might help you find a connection to the world around you, or the person standing right beside you.

It could be your way of relaxing after a long day at the office, or the coping mechanism for getting through rush-hour traffic. It might be the only way you can get your young one to sleep at night.

These are just some of the things singing can accomplish on an individual level; but when one person joins with others, the power of song is undeniable. Think about "We Shall Overcome," or the story of Estonia's Singing Revolution.

While overthrowing the people in power may be higher than you'd like to aim, singing can allow people to tap into memories once thought to be lost, and reconnect with loved ones. A study showed that choral singing has calming effects on a singer's heart rate. The singers' heart rates increased and decreased collectively as the music changed.

If you think you've never had that type of communal experience, you might be mistaken. Have you ever been in a crowd singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game"? Do you sing in the congregation at your preferred house of worship? Have you sung "Happy Birthday" at a party? You could be part of the collective experience any of those times.

In the so-called Land of 10,000 Choirs, many of us get that experience in a particularly structured manner. I sing in four choirs myself, including one that is made up almost exclusively of similar choral junkies: The Summer Singers.

Singing can heal the soul. That's why one of my fellow singers participates in so many groups. She has such a mind-numbing job that she needs to feed her soul in any way she can, and that's through singing. Another says singing can alleviate or augment her emotions, whether they're positive or negative. You may recognize how a sad song could help you work through that emotion and come out feeling better on the other side.

For me, however, singing is more about finding the calm and peacefulness at the end of a busy day. My life is filled with so many random acts of multitasking that choir rehearsal is practically the only place I can focus.

When I unplug from the rest of everyday existence and immerse myself in the collective, that's where I feel the magic.

There's more to singing, though, than emotion, peacefulness and healing your soul. Singing in an a cappella choir means you are constantly adjusting—to the voices around you, to the way the sound reverberates (or doesn't) in the performance space. There might be eight (or more) notes being sung at once, so where does yours fit in?

That's just the note. Then you need to make sure your "ah" matches everyone else's "ah," and that your beat matches the conductor's, and you appropriately capture the emotion of the passage — not just in your voice but on your face.

I liken it to walking a tightrope. I love the challenge, and I know I'm not alone.

This season, the Summer Singers are fortunate enough to have a newly commissioned piece by Joshua Shank titled "This is Why We Sing." Robert Ressler wrote a fantastic original poem by the same title that encapsulates so many of our emotions about singing. 

Ressler's text refers to a spark igniting and bringing music to life. It uses imagery that evokes the Big Bang. The melody line emerges from a sea of background murmurs and rises to a crescendo before settling into a mantra intoning the reasons why we sing.

Come hear us sing — or go to hear any of your area choirs. If the spirit moves you, find a choir to join. Here in Minnesota, at least, there are about 10,000 to choose from.