In communities that sing, you can hear sacrifice (and unity) in action.
At my husband’s big 30th birthday party, we sang the Doxology before eating, like we normally do in our church community. Later, a musical friend, dependable for understatements, dryly observed: “I like how we just sang the best rendition of the Doxology in the the greater Ohio area and it wasn’t any big deal.”
We sing together a lot — not because our congregation is composed of vocalists; we’re actually extremely average. Instead, our church has slowly grown a musical culture because of our priest, who insists that the “congregation is the choir” (we are high church Anglican; so, for example, our “sung service” includes a lot of chanting and difficult hymns without time signatures). To make this work better, we hold occasional hymnsings to learn harmonies and ease the awkwardness of new song introductions.
I’m the music director, which means that I clunk out the hymns on our piano and sing the melody as boldly as I can. At first, this was really hard for me and I had to lay down a good bit of self-consciousness and pride. In American culture, one’s voice is very personal. I was used to playing in worship bands and singing into microphones, which made me sound better. It took a bit of swallowing to sing in the way that is best for my congregation. I have to be that church lady: projecting and challenging my alto to reach the high notes for the sake of a strong melody.
As time has gone on and I’ve stopped thinking so much about my personal sound, I’ve probably become a better singer. But I’ve come to realize that this act — this forgetting of myself for the sake of the whole — is the core of real community. And, thankfully, we’re all doing it together. I think we’ve all realized that our service is much better when we purposely forget ourselves and sing heartily.
In modernity, making music has become a professional niche, for personal consumption. We use music to craft our individual identities, branding ourselves through social media links to esoteric bands. But, if this is the only way we experience music, through a focus on self and on consumption, we are being robbed of its power.
Music is for community — the real kind with many ages and abilities and walks of life. A corporate sense of peace, joy and wellbeing is called “harmony” for a reason. Singing together is not just “building” community; it is summing up community. You understand love in a different way. You hear sacrifice in action, as others, along with you, forget themselves for the sake of the whole, for the sake of being one.
Mostly, music is essential in a community because of how it weaves spells in the homeliest places. Week after week, it enchants us: my eyes see young and old, healthy and sick, Republican and Democrat, wealthy and poor, but my ears hear one layered sound. Some of the harmonies are imperfect — I can hear the child’s squeak and the homeless man’s drone. But when we sing together, I hear Love, which covers a multitude of wrongs. And I bear witness: there is no more beautiful sound.
Amanda McGill is a freelance writer, the music director at Christ the King Anglican church in Dayton, Ohio, and an editor for The Homely Hours (a liturgical living resource). She seeks a simple, well-read life with her young family and likes to make bread so her husband doesn’t have to win it.