– by Christopher Fenoglio
Photo courtesy of Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church
“Many singers in our choirs say that their lives are impacted dramatically by singing here,” says Bill Mathis, Music & Fine Arts minister at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, whose choirs are shown here.
There they are, on the seventh page of the United Methodist Hymnal, “Directions for Singing” from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism:
“Sing all… Sing lustily and with good courage… Sing in time… Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing… So shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.”
Rewards in heaven? Sounds like a good enough reason to sing in a church choir.
The Celebration Choir of the Poteau First United Methodist Church, which includes ten-year-old Warrick Quarry, sings at a Sunday worship service. Photo courtesy of Kaycee Quarry.
But what is it about singing that seems to be part of our Wesleyan DNA? How does singing help choir members enjoy a greater understanding of how and why we worship our God, a deeper connection with one’s church and community, and even better health?
“It’s natural for Methodists to sing in harmony. They are too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When singing in the key of C and they slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of them, it’s an emotionally fulfilling moment. By joining in harmony, they somehow promise that they will not forsake each other.” – Attributed to Garrison Keillor
A common statement about singing in church is “To sing is to pray twice.” Although the statement is often attributed to Augustine, the actual author is unknown. Still, the sentiment is true. Music is an art form that lifts up ordinary text to another level that inspires us and nurtures our souls.
“Music is an integral part of how we relate to God,” says the Rev. Laura Jaquith Bartlett, program director of the United Methodist Alton L. Collins Retreat Center in Eagle Creek, Oregon, and leader of the Great Hymns of Faith Retreat. “It is how we understand at a deeper level what goes beyond words, what our relationship is with the Divine, and how we are shaped together as a community of faith.”
Of all the art forms, “music is one of the most easily accessible type of art in worship,” says Bartlett. “There’s nearly always an opportunity to open your mouth and make music together with the rest of the people in that service. Right there you’ve got an opportunity to experience the Divine in a different way than just to listen to someone read about God,” she says.
“Christianity is not a solitary religion,” says the Rev. Karen Westerfield Tucker, professor of worship at Boston University School of Theology, “John Wesley certainly made the case that it is a ‘social’ religion — both in its worship and in its concern for the care of the neighbor,” says Tucker.
Singers and musicians lead singing during the opening worship service of the 2016 United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Ore. Photo by Paul Jeffrey, United Methodist Communications.
The benefit of singing with and caring for others goes beyond church walls, as many community choirs will attest. In these days of an increasingly polarized culture, music can be a common bond between peoples.
“Through music, we can build community,” says Dr. Jonathan Palant, Minister of Music at Kessler Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Palant is also the founder and director of Credo Choir and Dallas Street Choir.
“We bring people together in peace and harmony. I know it sounds trite, but it’s exactly what we do. In a choral setting, not only are we creating friendships with each other, but the audience can see, between the Dallas Street Choir and Credo, people in different socio-economic groups, skin colors, sexual orientations and religious affiliations,” he says.
“By singing in a choir, regardless where (church, community, university, secondary school, etc.), music becomes the conduit that brings us together in a very safe and equal environment,” says Palant. “We come together in song; everything else (about individual choir members) is irrelevant. We come together in worship, in song, in prayer, to learn and to be better citizens of this world.
“We believe singing in a choir and other creative arts can promote healthy aging,” says Dr. Julene Johnson, a University of California at San Francisco professor and founder and director of the Community of Voices study. “We were looking for a way for older people to remain independent and engaged. We knew that to have an effect the activity had to be meaningful, engaging and challenging. The creative arts do that.”
A similar study on the health benefits of singing for older adults is being conducted in Finland. Preliminary results suggest that community choral singing does indeed provide a better quality of life for participants.
Increased lung capacity and greater oxygenation of the blood resulting in improved alertness are all associated with singing. Singing is also good for the brain, especially when memorization is involved. “Singing is of great interest to neuroscientists as it would seem that there is more of the brain given over to the processing of music than almost any other activity,” says Dr. Graham Welch, professor at the Institute of Education in London.
One of his studies involved four- to five-year-old children and found that those with musical training showed enhanced language abilities and memory for words. There was also evidence that taking part in singing and other musical activities improves certain aspects of non-verbal reasoning, literacy and working with numbers.
So with this evidence that one’s health is improved through singing, how important is singing to our faith as United Methodists?
“It all goes back to Wesley’s words ‘Do all the good you can,’” says Palant. “This is the outlet that singers choose to act upon those words. Choir members find their spirituality and their faith through song and through the choral community.”
*Christopher Fenoglio works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact him by e-mail or at (615) 312-3734.