123…Come & Sing!
Last weekend saw singing events taking place all over the UK as part of Classic FM's 123sing! project. My contribution to the extravaganza was leading a Come & Sing workshop in Appleton, a medium-sized village in Oxfordshire. The workshop was organised and hosted by Harmony InSpires, the ladies barbershop chorus that rehearses in the next village, and through a combination of leafleting, advertising and word-of-mouth they pulled in a good sized group of participants.
There was a good mixture of experience amongst the participants, with quite a few seeing themselves as practised singers, the majority identifying with the description of ‘I do a bit of singing’, and a handful coming along for the opportunity to try a new experience. Interestingly, all of us – whatever our previous experience – found ourselves pleasantly surprised by how soon the group started sounding really rather good.
I think several factors fed into this speed of achievement. First, the advance organisation had been efficient and friendly, so people walked into the room with a good feeling about the event. And on arrival, the welcome was likewise cheerful and well-organised, so that moment of uncertainty (and thus anxiety) people feel walking into a new situation was minimised. The glorious autumn sunshine and the knowledge that other people were doing this all over the country also no doubt helped.
And then you get that magic of a group dynamic coming into being as a collection of individuals transmutes into an ensemble. There was some luck involved here (the room was a good size for the number of participants who signed up, and was also generous in acoustic) and also some judgement (we’d put some thought into how best to arrange the room to facilitate interaction). And it just takes one surprisingly good result early on to start the positive feedback loop from ear to confidence to voice as people come to realise how well their voices fit together.
It was particularly telling talking to a couple of the less experienced participants who couldn’t quite seem to believe they were doing okay. One needed to be reassured that she wasn’t spoiling things because, she said, she sounded ‘terrible’ when she sang along to the radio. It really brought home to me how much easier it is to learn to make music in a group than by yourself – the cooperative nature of the endeavour keeps you on track and in the groove while you build up the experience of how to do it. It’s like learning to sing with stabilisers on – much safer than starting off on two wheels.
You could also see how singing together served as a kind of social glue by the interpersonal interactions each time we stopped for a break. At the start of the day, people were making polite conversation in that slightly stilted ‘I’m friendly in principle, but it’s a bit hard talking to strangers’ kind of way. Four hours later conversations were far more animated – to the extent that it was hard to get people’s attention to start singing again. The content of the conversation wasn’t necessarily that different – enquiring about each other’s lives, where they lived, what other musical things they did – but it was just easier having sung together. The conversation could flow from an established common ground instead of having to create the common ground.
There is something very primal about singing together. It isn’t just a reminder that we are a social species, or even an expression of our social nature. It is more fundamental than that – one of the means by which we can forge social bonds by participating in the creation of an experience that none of us could create by ourselves.