If someone came up to you right now and asked you to sing something, how would you feel? (a) Delighted; (b) Embarrassed; (c) Terrified; or (d) Surprised (cuz that never really happens).
Singing is ancient and universal, an activity of deep importance to individuals, social groups, and religions. Recently, researchers have confirmed experiential understanding of the power of singing by documenting its many physical and psychological health benefits: from improving posture, sleep and respiratory health to boosting the immune system and reducing stress. Singing with other people seems to be even more helpful, leading to increased feelings of togetherness and belonging and stronger social ties. Membership in choirs is surging as people rediscover the joy of making music together using the most natural instrument, the voice.
But you don’t have to join a choir to experience all these positive effects: just come to a Unitarian service any Sunday morning! Singing in the context of religious activities is one of the most enduring forms of communal singing, and Unitarian Universalism is no different from other religions in this regard. Although we certainly don’t require everyone to sing along (that would be very un-Unitarian!), every person’s voice is welcomed and encouraged, regardless of whether they consider themselves a singer or not. That is one of the beauties of congregational singing: It is about participating rather than performing.
Still, we know that some people feel more comfortable with singing more than others. Many of us—especially those who answered ‘embarrassed’ or ‘terrified’ to my opening question—have had negative experiences in the past that undermine their ability to relax and enjoy singing in any setting. So this year we are trying some new strategies that we hope will help everyone derive more pleasure from singing together on Sunday mornings.
Song leaders: Many faith communities are led in song by an individual or group. We have used this approach sporadically in the past and have had positive feedback. Starting this fall, we are aiming to have a song leader for every service, someone who is able to support the congregation by singing with enthusiasm and confidence. (At present, three people have volunteered for this role. If this is something that interests you, please contact me!)
Core songs: There are so many great songs out there, in our two hymnals and beyond, and it’s tempting to keep trying new ones. But it’s through repetition that we learn songs well, so that we can experience them at a deeper level. This year, we have chosen several songs that those planning services will be encouraged to use as opening and ‘going forth’ songs.
In addition to these new approaches, our choir, the Circle of Song, will continue to provide leadership in singing, for example, by singing the verses of a new song, while the congregation is invited to sing the chorus. And do remember that while we (almost) always project song lyrics, if you find having the music as well as the words helpful, feel free to pick up the hymnbook(s) indicated on your way in (bearing in mind not all the songs we sing come from our hymnbooks!).
Many of my most moving spiritual experiences have involved music—singing in particular—and I know I am not alone in this. I think singing can be one of the best ways for Unitarians to balance out their tendency to be ‘in their heads’ by connecting in their hearts with music and each other. I’m excited about finding ways to enhance our congregation’s experience of singing, and I would love to hear from YOU how you feel about this aspect of Sunday services. What songs do you love, which ones don’t you like, what makes singing more or less easy and fun for you? And if you want to sing even more, please contact me about the Circle of Song (our motto: “We all belong in the Circle of Song”!).
Kathryn Green, Singing Coordinator