The Myth of the Power of Singing: Part 5

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The first four posts in this series were based on a critique of the Myth of the Power of Singing I presented as part of my paper for a Choral Studies Research Day in Dublin last November. This final post moves beyond that material to consider some of the ramifications for choral practitioners ourselves, and at this time.

Choral Exceptionalism.

If ever we wanted confirmation that the Myth of the Power of Singing isn’t *just* a myth, the era of Covid-19 has provided it. Deprived of our regular fix of raising our voices with our friends, choral singers across the world are pining and grieving, fiercely missing the comfort and connection of the feel of that corporate sound around us. We didn’t imagine the joy – just look at the gaping hole it left when taken away from us.

But to confirm that singing in groups has powerful effects on participants is not the same as to say it is unique in its capacity to uplift. Singing may be wonderful, but that does not necessarily mean that it is special.

We see the exceptionalist streak in our mythology most clearly in those studies purporting to demonstrate the wider effects of music learning, discussed in Part 2 of this series. Even if these studies were adequately controlled for factors such as economic privilege or parental support, there’s little to show that their findings could not have been achieved by other means. The growth in confidence, team-working and self-discipline such studies document may just as well be attainable from any structured activity that involves the systematic acquisition of skill in the company of others: drama, dance, judo, basketball, show-jumping, surfing.

Indeed, I am often struck by the slippage between general Musical Exceptionalism (learning an instrument makes you better at everything else) and Choral Exceptionalism (singing is a natural and universal part of our human heritage). Choral folk will happily ride the coattails of the general Power of Music narrative when it suits them, but are equally happy to assert extra specialness when they can on the basis that We Are Our Instruments. It’s quite a clever move actually: claiming the status as fundamental/primal form of musicking allows us to move from being a niche sub-category to a superordinate one.

Recent events have vividly demonstrated some of the dangers that exceptionalist narratives hold. For the whole of March, as coronoavirus approached in a palpable wave towards us, an implicit belief in British pluck and ingenuity got in the way of learning from the experience of other nations, or even working with them on projects that were manifestly in our interests to participate with. Looking and reaching outwards could have prevented so many of the early mistakes that have hobbled our response throughout.

Do the narratives of Choral Exceptionalism likewise inhibit us from learning from and working with other disciplines? Looking at our culture through this lens does draw attention to a certain insularity. Though all musicians are specialists of course; the relationship between dedication and expertise necessarily narrows the focus. Still, it is something on which, somewhat uncomfortably, to reflect.

In our current circumstances, Choral Exceptionalism has, I think, added to the emotional difficulties in learning that our activity is likely to be one of the last to be considered safe to resume. You could see this in the responses when it became clear, in particular in the wake of the webinar put out by NATS and others on 5 May, that singing held not only your common-or-garden dangers of bringing large groups together indoors for significant periods of time, but also extra dangers of producing lots of virus-carrying aerosols.

People were not just shocked and distraught at the news of how long we’d likely have to wait to rehearse and perform again, they were also in quite a few cases outraged. Denial and anger are normal parts of grief and to be expected, but these were often expressed with undercurrents of self-righteousness. We can’t possibly stop meeting until there’s a vaccine, came the message, because choral singing is Far Too Important and must therefore continue as soon as possible. We don’t like this science, was the sub-text, please find some that fits our self-image.

And this reaction is understandable. It is a huge blow. At the same time as our social, spiritual, and - for choral professionals - economic nourishment is withdrawn, we are told that we are exceptional for all the wrong reasons. We are used to living by a narrative of health and well-being, and have now had this replaced by one of infectiousness and danger.

I was in two minds as to whether to post about Choral Exceptionalism at all. At the time I was first making these observations back in the spring, it felt like it might be rubbing salt into the wound to point it out. But some time has passed, and we are adapting to the new abnormal, and I think identifying the narrative could be useful as we continue to develop our coping strategies. At least, I have found it so; it helps me think beyond my immediate reactions and consider my personal grief in a wider context.

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