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How can we keep from singing?

Betty Firth
Posted 9/14/16

I have had some lovely experiences with group singing in the last couple months that tweak my yearning to sing more with others. In July, I attended Friends General Conference (FGC) Gathering, an …

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How can we keep from singing?

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I have had some lovely experiences with group singing in the last couple months that tweak my yearning to sing more with others. In July, I attended Friends General Conference (FGC) Gathering, an annual event attended by Quakers from all around the world.

Since I could only attend the last two days, only a few of the morning workshops were open to me as most of the facilitators did not want the disruption of people coming and going. I knew clearly I wanted an experiential workshop with singing, movement or creative play and I chose Soulful Singing, drawn by the description: “We will sing rounds, sacred chants, spirituals, peace songs, hymns and fun songs to energize our bodies and nurture our souls with music that affirms our diversity, reflects our beauty and celebrates our unity. No experience necessary!” This was the third year that Ruth, our leader, had offered this workshop and she had it down beautifully. We started the morning with some silent worship, then did some stretching and vocal exercises to loosen up all over.

There were about 18 of us divided up fairly evenly between sopranos, altos and lower voices; the latter group sometimes split into two-part harmony with some of the altos joining as tenors. Almost all of us were just ordinary people who liked to sing, but the quality of the sounds that came out of that group was startling to all of us. Wow, was that us? A purity that came through, fueled by the worshipful intention and the relaxed but focused attention we were all contributing. A Minneapolis StarTribune reporter came to record and report; he stayed the whole morning, clearly reluctant to leave the room vibrating with good feelings.

Many of us experienced tears when particular words or harmonies struck chords within us. We all felt deep joy, as we brought the chants to life: “We are a circle within a circle, with no beginning and never ending” and “Round and round the earth is turning, turning ever into morning and from morning round to night.” Together we sent out our heartfelt intentions: “Peace begins when the hungry are fed. Peace begins when we see each other as a friend. Let the peace begin.” We shared laughter with lovely and lively harmonies on traditional favorites like When the Saints Go Marching In, This Little Light of Mine and a silly parody, What do we do with a singing Quaker?” A very powerful chant called Standing Stone was written in three parts by Melanie DeMore for a friend who had stage four cancer at the time...and later recovered: “I will be your standing stone. I will stand by you.” Melanie said, “Sometimes there is nothing we can do except stand by each other. Nothing else matters.” If you want to have a taste of what I experienced, follow this link to a video with Melanie teaching Standing Stone to a group called the Muse Choir. Don’t just listen: sing along and feel the repetitions imprint the words, deepening in meaning, as the tones echo in the hollows of your being. Feel the gentle certainty that the small act of putting beautiful thoughts out in the world with your voice does somehow make a difference.

Within the last two weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of two more musical happenings right here in Ely. The Sutter Brothers, Bart and Ross, performed at the Ely Public Library on Sept. 7, with Bart reading his poetry, Ross playing several instruments and both of them singing and sharing stories from their lives and Scandinavian heritage. They invited the audience to sing along and it didn’t take any urging for us to join in on Hello, Wisconsin (Have you seen my Yonny Yonson?), Go Tell Aunt Rhody, Old Blue, and favorites from the 60’s and 70’s, even chiming in with harmonies on some of them. In the cozy back corner of the library, sitting closer to each other than we’re usually comfortable doing, our voices and smiles filled the room. Ross gifted the Slovenians with Moja Dekla (which means Little Girl), a tune even familiar to my non-Slovenian ears just from living here amongst them.

Last Friday brought more musical richness with a singer/songwriter fundraising concert at the Ely Folk School featuring Joey Kenig, Lou Bartholome and Aurora Baer. Not the usual concert format, the three singer/songwriters sat in front of the audience and took turns singing tunes, accompanied by background notes on what inspired the lyrics and music of the songs they wrote, how they create, and what music means to them in their lives. It felt more like a slightly structured jam session which they’d invited us to, and I came away feeling touched by the music and stories that let us into their hearts and minds. The room was full of people who have known each other for years as well as newer residents and visitors, many who have worked to make the folk school a success; all enjoyed having a delicious nosh from a tempting variety of desserts during intermission. The evening was a potpourri of delightful ingredients, community shared, brought together once again by music.

A story from West Africa says that when a tribal woman knows she is pregnant, she goes into the wilderness with a few friends to pray and meditate until they hear the song of the child, which they then sing out loud. They recognize that every soul has its own vibration that expresses its unique flavor and purpose. They return and teach it to everyone in the village who gather to sing it when the child is born. The village again gathers to chant each child’s song when they begin their education, upon the initiation of adulthood, at the time of their marriage and on their deathbed. If anyone commits a crime, the villagers will surround the person and chant their song, believing that love and remembrance of identity is the proper correction; that when you recognize your own song, you recognize your real self and you have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt another.

Jill Mattson, author, artist, musician and sound healing composer, tells that story, saying, “In any culture, a friend is one that knows our song and sings it to us when we have forgotten it....they are not fooled by the mistakes we’ve made or the dark images we hold about ourself. They remember our beauty when we feel ugly; our wholeness when we are broken; our innocence when we feel guilty; and our purpose when we are confused.”

Another favorite song by Libby Roderick, puts those beautiful thoughts to music. Since she wrote it in 1988, it has made its way around the world and I have sung it in several different circles of friends through the years:

“How can anyone ever tell you you were anything less than beautiful?

How can anyone ever tell you you were less than whole?

How can anyone fail to notice that your loving is a miracle?

How deeply you’re connected to my soul?”

Try singing that with others, looking directly into each other’s eyes, and feel the truth of our connections with every other being. When you’re all ready, we can gather in the center of town and sing our hearts out.

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