Being in harmony is not about being the same – it’s about listening to one another and complementing each other while contributing things which may be very different; sometimes incorporating great contrasts and creativity. I love being part of a room full of people singing in harmony and am grateful to have a number of regular opportunities for this. The dozen of us singing at the prayer meeting at my house last weekend filled my house with a richer sound than I can achieve even blasting my stereo. While harmonising and good music are not, I believe, the priority in worship; it is part of how I enjoy praising God. Once I am familiar with a harmony line I sing it just as easily as the melody and can keep my main focus on God rather than what note I am singing. Most of the time anyway. Sometimes at an event like a wedding I may give nearer a performance, but I hope that’s part of my service to others as well as to God.
The tension between the music and worship does mean I like to have time to enjoy music for its own sake sometimes as well. I went back to a folk singing circle in Birmingham this week as part of treating myself to more cultural things now I have some free time. It’s a very friendly group who encourage all-comers to contribute some folk songs; mainly traditional British and Irish material although some US folk numbers pop up from time to time. Many traditional folk songs have a chorus or refrain and this is when the group really takes off – multiple layers of harmony building on a simple verse sung a cappella. This week we were singing lots about miners, love affairs and remembrance themes. I sang Green Valley (which I know from English group, The Devil’s Interval) and Liverpool Lullaby (as sung by Judy Collins in my Dad’s old vinyl collection). I’m sure you could find themes in there that are personal to me – perhaps being single and troubled kids for starters.
I also lead my own singing group on a Tuesday night – called Global Harmony. We sing traditional and church songs from around the world and have sung in over 40 languages, with lots of the songs taught by group members as well as gathered from sources like the Wild Goose Worship Group. Although numbers attending have sometimes been low it feels like an important venture. We welcome new and established community members, including some refugees and asylum seekers. Enjoying singing is more important than being good at singing, and I teach by repetition and using my hand to indicate pitch (pointing at invisible rungs of a ladder with high notes at the top down to low notes near the floor). Singing in a range of languages feels very democratic – we’re all learning from each other and valuing the diverse range of cultures and musical styles.
I’ve also joined the choir at my new place of work, and am enjoying preparing some more traditional songs for the carol service. It’s a good way to meet colleagues at the college and be part of the fabric of the place but to be honest, I don’t think the material really suits the diversity of the institution. I did suggest that I have a great Nigerian carol and even made the effort to write it down as sheet music but it seems to have been dismissed. I wonder if part of the reason why the choir has low numbers is that it doesn’t adequately reflect the college, but to be fair they have far healthier numbers than we do at Global Harmony.
Perhaps I’m getting a bit ‘right on’ with including people, but in a city like Birmingham it just seems crucial. Even the folk clubs make me a little uneasy as it is rare to be in such a white only environment in the city. I’m all for celebrating traditional British and Irish music but I’d like to think that if I took a friend from Nigeria or Zimbabwe and they contributed a traditional song from their own culture it would be equally welcome. I’m not 100% sure this would be the case; though I’m sure some of the folk group members would be delighted. Unfortunately it would only take one bad reaction to sour things and a place of harmony could become a place of dissonance. Maybe I’m doing them an injustice but I know that sometimes national pride hides more bigoted views. However, if I come back to the view that we don’t all have to think or be the same, maybe this might be the ideal environment for a bit more diversity. Maybe I should be bolder at the college choir as well – perhaps this boat could do with a bit more rocking…