The Healing Power of Music

November 25, 2015    BY Dimitra Kessenides

Whether Shalom, Halleluiah, or even “From the tables down at Mory’s,” there is peace in our harmonies. There were about 80 of us in the chorus at Northern Valley High School in Old Tappan, New Jersey. Our director, Dean “Doc” Simpson, was the sort of leader that made all the difference—an inspiring, effective teacher with a hearty sense of humor who also could instill in us unruly adolescents a proper solemnity. We had a tradition in those years: Every concert closed with the Peter C. Lutkin anthem, "The Lord Bless You and Keep You." A few lines with a round of amens at the end. Simple, clear, beautiful. It never felt repetitive, we never tired of it.

Our director, Dean “Doc” Simpson, was the sort of leader that made all the difference.

The Lord bless you and keep you.  
The Lord lift his countenance upon
you, and give you peace.
The Lord make his face to shine
upon you, and be
gracious unto you.
The Lord be gracious unto you.
Amen.

After the last note of the last piece of our program, we would fan out around the auditorium to envelope our audience with this blessing. The reassuring words with the lovely notes lifted us, first individually, then as a whole—chorus, director, audience. It was wondrous. It was why all of us were there.

The Appeal of Choral Singing 

The renowned choral director Robert Shaw, who in 1941 founded the multi-racial Collegiate Chorale, once wrote, “The basic premise of music-making is unity—and unanimity—and, in its non-liturgical sense, communion.” Those who have sung with a choir or chorus know this to be true, and it may help to explain why—according to Chorus America, a national association of choral groups—more Americans participate in choral singing than in any other performing art. Today, about 23.5 million American adults are members of choirs and choruses. 

Just what makes this form of music-making satisfying to so many people? People who sing point to effects that the voice as instrument produces: feelings of peace, calm, joy, and awareness of a more spiritual part of ourselves. Singing can be healing, emotionally and physically; it can provide solace, an escape from the chaos in the outside world or in ourselves, singers say. 

“There have been times when singing has brought me an overwhelming sense of peacefulness and everything being right, being what it needs to be,” says Kevin Mayes, 38, who was until recently director of global knowledge management at Aon Corporation in Chicago, work that he often found both stressful and isolating. “I find that sense of connectedness even more in singing than I do through prayer and meditation—both of which I also do,” he says. 

“That emotional connection with other people is why I keep going back to singing,” he says.

As a Yale undergraduate in the 1980s, Mayes sang with two a cappella groups, the Alleycats and the Whiffenpoofs, which required six to eight hours of rehearsal each week. “The people I sang with then are still my closest friends,” he says. The time spent together rehearsing and the shared joy of performing well are only part of it; there’s also the trust and total interdependence, “because the sound you’re after can’t be made by one person or by just half the group,” Mayes points out. Over the past 15 years, he’s sung with the Chicago Symphony Chorus, the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus, and two church choirs. “That emotional connection with other people is why I keep going back to singing,” he says. 

For Mayes as for so many others, the first experience of choral singing was as a boy in a church choir. Holcomb Noble was hooked at age 14, he says, by singing in a Hartford, Connecticut, church choir some 50 years ago. “I was immediately thrilled by it, by the sounds of harmony,” he says. “My first piano lesson was when I was eight years old. I remember going home afterwards and hitting what I didn’t know was a major third. I loved that sound of a C against an E. But even more, I came to love four-part vocal harmony.”

Noble recognized early on, he says, that one didn’t come by this feeling easily or often in life. Singing, he knew, would remain a constant in his world—which in time came to include the notoriously competitive newsroom of the New York Times,where he was a writer and editor until his recent retirement. In 1978, he found his way to the University Glee Club of New York (UGC), an all-male singing group of about 120 members, many of whom sang in their various colleges (hence the group’s name). The UGC, founded in 1894, performs on such landmark stages as those at Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall. While the music drew Noble in, what has kept him singing is the fellowship. 

“There is this long arc of membership, and camaraderie, with younger people always coming in,” says fellow UGC member David Smith, who joined in 1979. “As you get older, you ‘get’ the music to a different degree than you did in college,” says Smith, a database-management software consultant. “You listen more intensely, you pay more attention to the words, you feel the emotional content to a degree you couldn’t have when you were younger.” 

There’s a reason for this greater emotional availability to the music, Smith believes. “It comes from the experience of having had a child, lost a parent, suffered the various things that happen in life, especially when you span 25 years singing with some of the same people,” Smith says. “These people are among my best friends, their wives and children are extensions of my own family.”

Choruses in Context

One might define a chorus as a group of people singing together, creating harmony of some sort—and losing a little bit of their egos in order to form a larger entity. “There is a transcendence that takes place in choral singing,” says Joshua Jacobson, a professor of music at Northeastern University in Boston, and director of the Jewish choral group Zamir. “My goals are that at the end of every rehearsal I want my singers to feel better than they did coming in, somehow inspired, somehow uplifted.” 

“There is a transcendence that takes place in choral singing.”

My own choral director, John Maclay, of the Choral Society of Grace Church in New York City, says, “Collectively, a wonderful aspect of this art form is that it allows you to forget yourself, and it creates some intensity of feeling.” 

And that happens despite age, personal and religious beliefs, cultural and professional backgrounds, sometimes even despite musical experience. “We don’t do this as individuals,” says Paul Johansen, a pharmaceutical statistician in Philadelphia, and a member of the Philadelphia Chorale. “This is an organism. I am one voice out of 150 working to create one sound—whether or not I’m able to hear my own voice.” 

Choral singing outside of the church didn’t happen in Europe until the 18th century, says Northeastern’s Jacobson. Inspired by Handel’s Messiah, which premiered in Dublin in 1742, people began to organize community choral groups. “With the decline of the church, the decline of monarchies, and the rise of nationalism, secular equivalents to those institutions arose, taking the place of sacred rituals,” he says.

One of the first secular choral arrangements was Verdi’s Requiem, a grand musical setting of a sacred text that was not written to be part of any liturgical service but to be a concert piece. So choral music moved to the stage.

Transported by Music?

Singing or chanting as a means of focusing the mind and driving out distraction in order to reach a spiritual “place” has deep roots in Western tradition, especially among the monastic orders. It goes back even further in Hindu tradition, where the practice of kirtan, a simple call-and-response chant in Sanskrit, has been practiced for thousands of years.

Singing or chanting as a means of focusing the mind and driving out distraction in order to reach a spiritual “place” has deep roots in Western tradition, especially among the monastic orders.

Since age seven, when she first sang with the church choir at a Lutheran congregation in New York City, Carole Linda Gonzalez has known that music intensified what she describes as a heightened spiritual awareness. “I believe there’s another reality from the one we’re in. I’ve always been seeking—by doing, reading, listening—to try and understand the spiritua experiences I’ve had,” she says. 

Gonzalez, a member of the Choral Society of Grace Church in New York City, sees her yoga practice and her singing as two aspects of her spiritual discipline. “Some say music brings you someplace. Music didn’t bring me someplace. I was somewhere and the music enhanced where I was.”

Singers’ Breath

Singing has enhanced Joy Hainsworth’s life, in ways expected and unexpected. A farmer in Eugene, Oregon, Hainsworth, who is 72, has Parkinson’s disease. “I believe that the progression of Parkinson’s has been slowed by my singing,” she says. “It relaxes my whole nervous system; I haven’t had to increase the dosage of medicine I take.” She sings with two groups, Soromundi, a lesbian chorus in Eugene, and the Unitarian church choir. “I’ve always known music was important for my emotional state, but I had no idea what it would do for my physical state,” she says. 

As long as she can get enough air into her lungs, Hainsworth says, she can let the sound out through her vocal chords and blend with the other voices that amplify it. “As I’ve gotten older the voice has gotten lower—now I’m a bass,” she says. “When we’re singing, I like that bass tone, way down deep, and when there are others in the section singing the same tones, it has a great power. There’s something satisfying about having power and using it to create gentleness.”

Kevin Mayes, the former Yale Whiffenpoof, sees a relationship between singers’ breath and yoga breath. “In both,” he says, “when you work too hard at managing and controlling it, you lose the flow and become mechanical. But,” he adds, “without the consciousness, the right breathing is not going to happen. You want to be finding the magical place in the middle where you are in the flow without forcing it.” Mayes believes that the two disciplines help each other: “If you’re a better breather as a singer, your yoga breath will be better also.”

Memories of Summer Camp

One of my publishing colleagues, Matthew Heimer, spent boyhood summers at a Jewish day camp in San Francisco. The end of each day was marked with storytelling, and then a round of the chant Shalom Haverim. 

Eight-year-old Matthew would stand in the circle, arms crossed in front of his body, holding hands with his neighbor on each side, and all of them singing: 

Shalom haverim, Shalom haverim,  
Shalom, shalom.
L’hitraot, l’hitraot,
Shalom, shalom.

The words bid “peace, until we meet again.” “That would really move me,” Matt says. “If you had a good day, you’d remember what a great day it was and wish it wasn’t over and be kind of sad and wistful about it ending. If you had a crappy day, the feeling of singing the song, maybe it made you wish you’d done better, or not been mean. 

“It was an emotional exclamation point on what otherwise was just another day at a low-budget summer camp,” he says. 

When Matt shared this memory with me, I thought of myself in high school singing the Christian benediction “The Lord bless you and keep you.” 

I had dropped singing after high school. For years, I explained it as a decision to put away childish things and move on, to focus on new interests, on academics, to experience life in other ways. But in truth, I was sad that those days and those perfect moments had come to an end. 

I finally found my way back to music.

It wasn’t until the fall of 2001, living in a wounded, post-9/11 New York City, mourning so many things, that I finally found my way back to music—cautiously, at first, because I was afraid to count on recapturing past pleasures, and I wasn’t sure I was prepared to make the commitment to a group. But eventually, I gave in to much of what’s been described here, and more; I gave in to the music, and the music helped me find my way to a new community, and a new sense of my place in it.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Yoga International.

Dimitra Kessenides
is a New York-based writer and the editor of Barnard magazine.

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