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Monday, March 06, 2006

The Dying Art of Singing

A week ago I went to a funeral for one of the best singers I've ever known. Marlin wasn't a widely known singer outside his Church circles, but he was widely known within it. He wasn't the best voice I've ever heard, but when Marlin sang, you could hear the best of him in his voice.

In Marlin's funeral there was plenty of singing: a French hymn with esoteric melodies, an old favorite (Wonderful Grace of Jesus) and two Church of the Brethren standards, including "Move in Our Midst." The congregation made the rafters ring. Marlin had been music director for 30 years in the same Church where his funeral took place. The Church Choir, including veterans from his own years as director, and the Timbercrest Choir, a choir Marlin cultivated for years in the retirement community where he lived, were outstanding in their choral remembrance. I haven't heard singing like that in a long time.

Even in my own Church, singing seems often more awkwardly dutiful than from the heart. It seems that many Churches have run headlong into the inane practice of singing off overhead screens without hymnals. (Canned music seems to often accompany . . . and cue the lights, please!) Even worse has been the move to 'entertainment' singing in Churches, where a worship band 'leads worship' and the congregation kind of jives along. (Can lighters for the end of the worship service - with Church logos on them - be too far behind?)

Singing from the heart is one of God's gifts to Creation. Birds sing, obviously. But actually nearly "everything that has breath" sings. A song communicates what's in the heart - praise and adoration to God, love and adoration to other people, sentiments both joyful and grievous.

Everyone used to sing. Until the 1960's, nearly every classroom had a piano and every school had a music teacher. Every Church had a pianist and organist and choir. In taverns, people sang. In community halls, people sang. There was a 'national repertoire.' Who didn't know "I've Been Working on the Railroad" or "Clementine" or "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain"?

And of course, everyone sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at ball games and other public affairs. Last time I was at a basketball game, I felt like I was the only one singing the National Anthem! My wife looked at me as if I were creating a scene.

I like to sing out. When I have a hymnal in my hands, I try to find my part. If I can't, I just sing along the melody. When I'm walking in the woods, I'll sing at the top of my lungs, so that God and the deer and squirrels can hear (and sing along?).

Why don't people sing anymore? I have three observations. These are not scientifically researched or authoritative. They may even seem obvious. But here they are anyhow.

First, I think many people have lost a reason to sing. It seems like our culture spends so much time dwelling on our own angst that we don't have time to dwell on how great life is and how much there is to sing about. Everyone has problems and I have problems, too. But I also see the beautiful sunrises and the wide open skies. I see beauty in people and joy in relationships. These are reasons alone to sing.

Second, I think many people think they can't sing. Just a week or so ago, when Don Knotts died, a radio commentor spoke about her favorite episode of The Andy Griffith Show, in which Barney Fife joins the Church choir but sings so awfully that he drowns out the other choir members. The great thing about it was that Barney seems totally unaware of his tin-ear. He just loved to sing. I think most people can sing better than they give themselves credit for. But their singing has to come from the heart - not from the voicebox.

Third, most contemporary music is not good for singing. When was the last time a group broke out singing anything written in the last 20 years? When did anyone's family gather around the piano, or on the porch with a guitar? Does anyone know all the words to their favorite hymns - or does anyone sing hymns anymore?

Re-discover singing! Go find a tune and sing out! Find two or three other people and sing as many verses as you can to "Clementine." Turn off the radio in your car or the TV in your family room and dust off a kids' songbook and sing a while.