There is something about singing that defies explanation, but I will try my best. I have been a professional vocalist since I fronted a jazz big band at age 16. In my bow tie and tuxedo, the power to mist the eyes of older people at a car auction while singing “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” changed me. And, I saw the glee of couples kicking up their heels and staring at each other’s eyes when singing “Fly Me to The Moon” which in those days, profoundly impressing my younger self. In high school, our singing sextet won national awards each year I was in the group. The hours of practices that began punctually at 6:30 AM each day paid off. The long recording sessions in a studio made of egg crates using the earliest digital 8-track recording painfully pulled us into first place often.
In art, there is usually is an act of creation. With singing, every time you open your mouth you create a moment. A painting will last, revisited often. But, to sing something in front of others “live” means that it will pass into nothingness once the moment ceases. For a moment there is something created that will last only in memory. This act of creation can be powerful to shape us and our listeners for a couple reasons I think.
First, singing adds the intellectual to the beautiful. Not only does one have the structure of music and the plot points of the story to tell, to use one’s body to emote and color the sound and phrasing. You can embody a story for that moment. The listener is watching, hearing, and feeling something from your very body. It is not a horn, or a guitar. There may be instrumentation, but the voice is a connection point unique to us in that words and emotions both are employed. The empirical and the mystical compliment each other.
One of my favorite bands is a band called Gungor. When covering their tune “Beautiful Things” in a small church service, I saw streams of tears. A meaningful story that employs a well-crafted melody moved our group of worshippers as we all sang it together. On one part, the women sang a descant over the melody. It was at that point of texture that a simple musical device that can be given a term in music school became a real-to-life moment of creation. Singing brought us there. It changed us in that moment.
The second idea is that not only does singing bring the intellectual and beautiful together, it also is both spiritual and physical. Sound waves actually touch the listener. And, it takes athletic precision to sing well. A good singer will sweat. The muscles of the torso, neck, and how you stand all are employed. While a good vocal technique means you are “relaxed” in some areas, it takes some effort to sing.
On another note, the human ear is designed to hear the human voice. This is why you can have an orchestra playing at over 100 decibels and still hear the opera diva who usually does not have sound reinforcement. A baby can be heard through walls! All the young parents reading this just nodded in unison. In fact, there is a sound frequency range audio engineers call the “baby cry” that exists. You have to be careful to manage these specific ranges in frequencies or you might have listeners crying fowl. These ranges are what the human voice produces.
The spiritual component exists because singing is prayer. Prayer? Yes. Of course, many recall the saying “he who sings prays twice” often in vocal classes. What is true about this is clear. Singing is asked of us at least 100 times in the Bible. Beyond Christianity, every culture has some form of religious and spiritual expression that employs singing. In prayer, singing allows the mind to take beauty and intellect and marry them as a physical expression. Jesus, who is “the Word made flesh” expresses to us this mystery. Singing is a metaphor for the power and reality of the Incarnation. I love how Paul wrote in his seconder letter to the Corinthians the following:
What does this mean? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind. I will sing psalms with my spirit, but I will also sing psalms with my mind. (14:15)
Praying is thinking and singing. It is spiritual and intellectual. And, of course singing is physical. All four singing components–intellect, beauty, spiritual, and physical–work together in harmony and tension.
Next time you take voice lessons or practice singing, remember the four components. Singing is powerful. The stories you choose to tell influence more than you know. To worship God, we find that singing is naturally created for this purpose. The moment created in the act of singing, whether expressing a story about life or calling people to worship God, matter. Yes, the moment of those misty-eyed listeners ended years ago. But, moments can change you and your listeners–and, even the world. Keep singing!