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The myth of the power of singing

One morning in 2007 or 2008 I was listening to the news in my regular wait to turn onto the Birmingham Inner Ring Road, when I was surprised to hear a cheering headline: the UK government had pledged a significant sum of money to encourage singing in primary schools. Over the next few years, the Sing Up! Programme went on to provide a rich and varied collection of songs tied into the UK National Curriculum, and training for schoolteachers on how to lead singing in the classroom.

The Sing Up! programme is one of the most far-reaching examples of the use of narratives surrounding the power of singing to influence policy. Other examples include the move towards ‘social prescribing’: the practice of doctors sending people to arts participation programmes as an alternative or supplement to drugs in treating both mental and physical ailments. Or, in the third sector, choral organisations foreground the social and educational outcomes of singing to justify claiming a charitable status, with all the financial advantages that confers.

As participants in this musical practice, we can all recognise the place this narrative comes from. We have all experienced the addictive pleasures of choral participation. Moreover, in a world where budgets are squeezed, and a relentless focus on utilitarian approaches to education promotes STEM subjects over the arts, we understand the need to fight our corner to keep a toehold in the curriculum.

The belief that singing in groups is an unalloyed power for good, verging in some accounts to a panacea for all social and personal ills, is rarely subject to critique. It serves as our profession’s guiding mythology, asserting the value of what we do as absolute and self-evident. However, there are several reasons why we should think more critically about this narrative.

The stories we tell about singing and its benefits are so often presented via pseudoscience

The self-help/self-improvement industry produces a regular stream of feel-good articles that mix up cherry-picked morsels from empirical studies with earnest encouragement from creative practitioners into a pseudoscientific concoction that vividly exemplifies the genre of literature that has memorably been termed ‘Neurobollocks’ in the blog of that name. (I have recently learned that in polite society you can refer to these instead as ‘neuromyths’.)

These articles exemplify one of the key identifiers of a cultural mythology: that people believe anything and everything that affirms the narrative, without stopping to question the evidence. But if we want people to take our claims about singing seriously, we need to be meticulous about the evidence on which we base them.

The way the myth gives the impression that any and all experiences of singing are positive. 

If the mere existence of a choir confers health and well-being, we are let off the hook from reflecting on the actual quality of experience we are offering. And people do continue to cling to their choral activities through considerable levels of emotional pain, which if not always inflicted by the director is usually permitted by them.

This is amongst the ones who persist in their choral singing. In my chapter for the Oxford Handbook of Choral Pedagogy I investigated the construction of the ‘non-singer’. These are some of our culture’s ‘musical walking wounded’, to use John Sloboda’s phrase; people who keep themselves clearly and assiduously separate from the category of singer, and carefully protect themselves from situations that would expose them to a repeat of the experiences that led to them forming the identity of ‘one who does not sing’. They are as much a product of our musical culture as the joyful enthusiasts, and their existence represents the dirty underside of the Myth of the Power of Singing.

The myth interferes with choral research. 

The scholar-practitioner always has a tricky line to tread. As a scholar they are committed to ideals of objectivity and transparency; as a practitioner they clearly have skin in the game. The prevailing narrative that singing is always and inherently a Good Thing amplifies this conflict of interest by eliding the distinction between practice and advocacy. The result is a tendency to build mythological assumptions into research design, undermining the validity of results.

In our current circumstances, the culture of choral exceptionalism the myth breeds has, I think, added to the emotional difficulties in learning that our activity may be one of the last to be considered safe. In addition to the experience of social, emotional, and – for choral professionals – economic loss, there is a palpable shock to the ego. We have been asked to relinquish not only the activity that nourishes us, but also the comforting self-image of benevolence.

If we can let go of the defensiveness and outrage, though, this hiatus gives us the chance to reflect a little more honestly on the narratives with which we build our choral identities. Acknowledging the dark corners that the Myth of the Power of Singing has allowed us to gloss over won’t diminish the very real joy our craft brings, but will rather help us share it more effectively.

Featured image: Choral singing children by Gustavo Rezende via Pixabay

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