How Can I Keep From Singing?

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St. Paul’s School Chapel of St Peter and St Paul Concord, NH. Karen Bobotas Photographer

This blog entry is based upon a Chapel Talk I gave at St. Paul’s School, Concord, NH on Tuesday, September 20, 2016. It was designed to give some perspective on the way we include the singing of hymns in our unique chapel environment, which is rooted in the Episcopal tradition, and open and welcoming to people of all faith backgrounds.

This morning we are going to talk a little bit about how and why we sing hymns in chapel. Singing together is something that people have done for many, many centuries. In this chapel, we use the Episcopal Hymnal, as well as the Hymnal Supplement and occasional hymns that are on handouts. Some of these hymns are better known than others, and I like to think that part of everyone’s experience at St. Paul’s School is the opportunity to become familiar with the great heritage of Anglican hymnody that has become such a rich part of our Episcopal tradition. As with everything that we do in the chapel, we are not in the business of forcing this aspect of our life together upon all who enter this building, and I’m certainly not in the business of berating people for not singing. Most importantly, we are inviting you in to experience this wonderful music and poetry and, hopefully, develop some favorite hymns, be part of the communal activity, and take the memories of these expressions of joy, sadness, hope, grandeur and mission away with you into the world. I simply ask you to consider this. If you enjoy music and singing, are you being true to yourself during the hymn, or are you more concerned with what other people are thinking about you? If you like music, but you have never experienced group singing before, are you able to stand and appreciate the sounds around you, and feel part of the community during this moment of communal music-making? If you have been here for a while, are you encouraging others to join in the singing with your body language, or are you impacting the energy in the room by resisting the activity?

Our time in chapel allows us the opportunity to reclaim some of this integrity, to leave the outside world at the door for a few minutes each day, and to be creators and influencers of societal norms rather than followers.

Our society has lost a great deal of the value of communal singing in recent years. With the omnipresence of recorded music, the “insta-music” now available to people via digital media, the emphasis on an overly-produced studio sound, and the feeling that anyone can be a star…courtesy of TV programs like American Idol and tools like Garage Band…society has unintentionally devalued the more integral aspects of music-making in favor of glitz and glamor. Our time in chapel allows us the opportunity to reclaim some of this integrity, to leave the outside world at the door for a few minutes each day, and to be creators and influencers of societal norms rather than followers.

So, let’s change course for a minute, and sing something of which most of us will have a working knowledge. If I sing this phrase to you, what will you sing in response?

Old MacDonald had a farm…

E-yi, e-yi-o.

And on that farm he had a dog…

E-yi, e-yi-o.

(At this point, the entire teaching faculty of the school were asked to stand and sing “With a woof-woof here” – which they did enthusiastically! – and then each form in sequence, as follows:)

 Faculty – Dog

6th form – Cat

5th form – Sheep

4th form – Cow

3rd form – Chicken

So, you can sing! Or even if you think you cannot sing, we as a community can! Leave your inhibitions at the door, throw caution to the wind, engage the part of you that doesn’t care what other people think, and put it out there for all to hear. All types of singing have positive psychological effects. The act of singing releases endorphins, the brain’s “feel good” chemicals. Singing in a group setting naturally builds confidence, which has broad and long-lasting effects on general well-being.

So, my invitation to all of you, as we gather here each morning is this. As you become more and more familiar with the hymns that we sing, try joining in the singing with your neighbor, or your partner across the aisle. If you find it uncomfortable, think of it as just another one of those challenges with which you are faced each day. Who knows, you may start to enjoy it, and get really good at it.

And then you can join the choir…!

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