The Myth of the Power of Singing: An Essay in 5 Parts

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This is the first instalment of a series of blog posts that turns a self-critical eye on the stories choral practitioners tell to ourselves about ourselves and what we do. It is based on the paper I was invited to present at Dublin City University’s Choral Research Study Day back in November 2019, of which it formed a subsidiary part of a wider discussion around how the scholar-practitioner copes with the inherent contradictions between their roles as impartial observer and as advocate.

I have wondered whether it is entirely kind to publish it at a time when choral practitioners are keenly feeling the loss of both the social and musical nourishment our regular activity would bring us. But then again perhaps now is an appropriate time for reflection; maybe we’ll have more perspective on our work at a time when we can’t actively engage in it. And at a pragmatic level: this is something I’ve been thinking about blogging about for years but now is the first time I’ve had enough of a hiatus in the other things I’d normally be writing about to make space for it. (And indeed I may interrupt the series with other things as they come up.)

Ah well, here goes.

Part 1: Introducing the Myth

One morning in 2007 or 2008 I was listening to the news in my regular wait to turn onto the Birmingham Inner Ring Road, when I was surprised to hear a cheering headline. The UK government had pledged a significant sum of money to encourage singing in primary schools. I can remember the moment clearly, because it’s just not the kind of thing you normally hear on the morning news. Over the next few years, the Sing Up! Programme went on to provide a rich and varied collection of songs tied into the UK National Curriculum, and training for school teachers on how to lead singing in the classroom. Follow-up studies showed that, whilst take-up was inconsistent, it had made a significant difference in a good many schools.

Of course, after a few years the money ran out, and it had to transform into a paid-for service that schools to could opt to spend some of their ever more stretched budgets on. It is still going, and still being useful, but with nothing like the reach it had in its state-funded era.

The Sing Up! programme is probably the most far-reaching example in my experience of the use of narratives surrounding the power of singing to influence policy. Other examples would include the move towards ‘social prescribing’: the practice of doctors sending people to arts participation programmes as an alternative or supplement to drugs in treating both mental and physical ailments. Or, in the third sector, choral organisations foreground the social and educational outcomes of singing to justify claiming a charitable status, with all the financial advantages that confers.

As people involved in choral music, we are familiar with the claims made for the positive effects of singing in groups. The Choir With No Name, which acts as both a support network and a focus for fundraising for people affected by homelessness, presents a pleasantly down-to-earth, no-nonsense version of this narrative, clearly designed to be appropriate for its target demographic:

We were founded on the premise that singing makes you feel good; it distracts you from all the nonsense in life and helps you to build confidence, skills and genuine, long lasting friendships.

Other versions of this narrative develop a more detailed and discursively sophisticated taxonomy of benefits, in order to recruit the authority of the academy to support the cause. Singing, it is claimed, improves cardiovascular health, alleviates depression, reduces social isolation, strengthens the immune system, increases intelligence in the young and slows cognitive degeneration in the old, and develops resilience, self-assurance and team-working skills.

To these personal benefits to participants, choirs also claim wider, more abstract, moral goods: building community, spiritual healing, social action. ‘Singing can change the world,’ announced Bob Chilcott at an Association of British Choral Directors convention, though he did not specify quite how.

As participants in this musical practice, we can all recognise the place this narrative comes from. We have all experienced the addictive pleasures of choral participation. Moreover, in a world where budgets are squeezed, and a relentless focus on utilitarian approaches to education promotes STEM subjects and endless testing regimes over the arts, we understand the need to fight our corner to keep a toe-hold in the curriculum. The narrative was deployed quite brilliantly by the team who conceived the Sing Up! programme, and to great effect.

The belief that singing in groups is an unalloyed power for good, verging in some accounts to a panacea for all social and personal ills is rarely subject to critique. It serves as our profession’s guiding mythology, asserting the value of what we do as absolute and self-evident. However, even though I am one who has happily drunk the choral Koolaid, and indeed make my living helping other people do so too, there are a number of reasons why I would suggest we need to think more critically about this narrative.

We will look at these reasons in the next 3 parts to follow, leaving the final one to draw the threads together into some conclusions.

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