Everyone can sing! But most of us don’t do so half enough. I have recently come to believe that singing together is a defining attribute of the human condition and if you fail to do it often enough you become something less than human. It might be closely related to laughter. Recent research has shown that laughter is an essential social lubricant; that it is difficult to laugh if you are alone in the room; that endorphins are released when we laugh together. Everyone knows that it is impossible to tickle yourself.
In recent years my pal Lulu has organised singing weekends led by Sian Croose at the Camphill Community in Ballytobin, Co Kilkenny. Not being a religious fellow, I haven’t been to every session, but I have, on a few occasions, found myself being transported to another space. The suffering of being an Intellectual is that it is difficult to leave that tick-tick-whirr aside and let yourself GO. Sian typically allows people to decide their own pitch and assemble into sections, she then teaches, by ear and repeat, each section its part. That can be a teensy bit draggy sometimes, but eventually everyone knows their bit and Sian starts one section going on their own. After all the rehearsal, it sounds good. Then she brings in another part which, by accentuating and complementing the first, sounds much richer. When she adds a third part, your first thought is “it can’t get better than this – this is really fine”. But there are two more parts to be woven in…! If the conditions are right it can be remarkably affecting. Indeed, there have been times when I’ve had to concentrate really hard on just singing my own small bit because if I listened to The Whole, I knew I wouldn’t be able to continue: I would be, as the Victorians had it, unmanned.
A tuthree years ago, I saw a familiar figure across the car-park at one of these workshops and bounded across the intervening space crying “SenSei, SenSei” because Sinead O’Brien my old djembe teacher had come to sing. Religiously (you see I used to be religious), I went to her “drum, dance and body-percussion” classes every Tuesday night for about four years at the end of the last century. It took forever for me to stop thinking and just drum. It was, for example, fatal to look at my hands because their response was “oh ho, brain taking over, flub”. Sinead reminded me about the time when at last, I managed a simple variation of ‘elephant walk’ called ‘fumé-fumé’ and the light came on across my face. To drum together, like to sing together, you’ve just got to leave yourself (and all those quotidian worries) at the door and listen to the heart beat (the name of another simple drumming exercise). There was a time in Sinead’s classes when she was busy as people drifted in from work and took their seats. Someone started an idle riff on his drum, and his neighbour took it up, and that seemed good to another person in the circle and they embellished the rhythm and … soon we were all jamming away and Sinead left her paperwork and took up a spare drum (or two!). 40 minutes later we're still all up to ninety and class hadn’t even started. Another week, half an hour before class was due to finish, Sinead stopped abruptly and said: “that’s it, who’s for a drink?”. And we all heaved a sigh of relief because that night it was all work and no reward and we were going nowhere. Who knows how these group dynamics work? Is it pheromones? Is it so deeply embedded in our psychology that we have collective emotions?
A few years ago at the annual home educators gathering, I sat in on one of Raj Padam’s drum circles. Our group was heavy on the adults, so Raj spent rather along time lecturing us about the virtues of drumming with small-small children before he go t on down to just drumming. There were several in the group who, like me, had been drumming before, and a lot of them, like me, were in trouble because they were thinking about it far too much. On the collective lap, however, there were three toddlers, who were drumming much better that me and the other thinking reeds. We never lose our sense of rhythm but, like learning languages, it’s a lot easier to acquire skill if we do it early. Drums cost money, but if we all sang together we’d have a better idea of our place in the world.