Singing groups

March 31, 2018

Family singing groups

Imperfect HarmonyARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Ari Shapiro, in Washington. We start off this hour with a look at the pleasure, joy and physical benefits of singing in groups. Writer Stacy Horn found herself divorced and miserable at age 26. She decided to audition for the Choral Society of Grace Church in New York, even though, as she says, she doesn't have a great voice. That was more than 30 years ago, and she's been an active member of the group ever since. Here's the choir under music director John Maclay singing Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Opus 123, known as "Gloria."


CHORAL SOCIETY OF GRACE CHURCH: (Singing) In excelsis gloria, gloria, gloria, gloria, gloria, gloria, gloria.

Later in the program, an argument that meals win wars. But first, Stacy Horn joins us from our New York bureau to talk about her new memoir. It's called "Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others." Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Stacy.

STACY HORN: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: OK, so you write that you tried kayaking, banjo playing and hip-hop dancing, but singing, you say, is the one skill I've tried that makes my life better, and it works even though I'm not particularly great at it. So how does that happen?

HORN: Well, actually, I found studies that said the exact same thing. In fact, I found this one academic paper that said it - in the most straightforward terms, it said group singing and performance can produce satisfying and therapeutic sensations, even when the sound produced by the vocal instrument is of mediocre quality.


SHAPIRO: We're going to get into the science behind singing in a little bit, but you also go into the history of group singing, and you emphasize so many instances in which this is not a rarified practice of the elites, but rather the thing that the masses do. You know, you start by talking about Pennsylvania coalminers in the '60s. Later, you talk about something called the People's Choral Union. Explain what that was.

HORN: Well, I wanted to emphasize in the book that this is something that amateurs can do. I mean, certainly, professional singers join choir, but, you know, as long as you can sing in tune - and most people can - you can find incredible joy in this music. And the People's Choral Union was started by a man named Frank Damrosch in 1892, and he came from a very wealthy family.

But he was a good man, and he immediately thought of all these people that were not benefitting from the same thing that he'd grown up with. So he started the People's Choral Union, and charged 10 cents for classes. And I just love the descriptions. The very first class was at Cooper Union. And he was afraid nobody would show up.

And when he walked up to the place, there were people on the street, and he literally had to - he gave a lesson to everybody inside, and then changed everyone out, and the people that were out on the street came inside, and then he gave the whole lesson again.

SHAPIRO: That's a great story. Another aspect of this sort of like singing for the people that you mentioned is an "Ave Maria" that I had heard before that I had no idea was written to be sung by a group of not particularly talented people, a group of firefighters who want to do choral music. We have a bit of this that we're going to play, but first, just tell us what we're going to hear.

HORN: That is such a beautiful, transcendent piece. Just because something is simple doesn't mean that it won't provide a complicated and enriching experience to sing it. But one quote I love, Randall Thompson - another composer that I wrote about - he said if a piece of music is too difficult for amateurs to sing, the chances are that it is not good enough.

And I love that quote, because it should be something that's accessible to just about anyone. So yeah, this piece is beautiful.

SHAPIRO: So, this is an "Ave Maria, " composed by Franz Xaver Biebl to be sung by firefighters. Here's a recording of it.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Ave Maria, gratia plena, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.

SHAPIRO: Stacy Horn, I could listen to that forever.

HORN: Yeah, you know, the slower you are, it gives us just that much more time to luxuriate in the harmonies that you produce.

SHAPIRO: Can you describe what the feeling is when you are in a tight harmony in a chorus?

HORN: That's a good question. You know, actually, on the way over here, I was thinking about Eric Whitacre's music. He's a composer, and he writes these harmonies that are very close and dissonant. And it's very hard to maintain, but if you do, it creates this shimmer, not just a sound, but a physical shimmer that you feel when you sing it, and you don't want it to end.

SHAPIRO: At one point in your book you describe it as almost like creating a hologram, which I thought was such a good image.

HORN: I know, I know. There's so many ways to describe it. I mean, when you're in harmony with a bunch of other people, it's almost like coming out of a coma or a zombie-like state into this world with many more dimensions.

SHAPIRO: We have a quote from Linda Bevard(ph) here. She writes: I sing with two a cappella groups in Denver, and here's one of my favorite quotes: "I don't sing because I'm happy. I'm happy because I sing."

HORN: Exactly, exactly.

SHAPIRO: Let's go to Alison(ph) in Salt Lake City, Utah. Hi, Alison. You're on the air. Go ahead.

ALISON: Hi. I was just calling to tell you I grew up singing in my church and in choirs and stuff, and recently, I've lost the religion of my childhood, and I don't have the chance to sing as often anymore. And this past year, my children's school choir asked me to co-direct. And so I have been doing this for the past year, and I did not realize how much my soul had missed singing and how - what a wonderful release that was.

And it's just children's music. We're not very good. In fact, I'm going over to do the concert for the school kids in about 10 minutes here. And...

SHAPIRO: Oh, great.

ALISON: We're not great, but it's so wonderful to have that emotional release that I didn't realize how much I missed.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call, and good luck with the concert in about 10 minutes.

HORN: Yeah, yeah. I used to hear - I asked a lot of people in my choir: Why did you join the choir? And a lot of people said something similar. They said: I knew something was missing in my life, and it was music and connection to other people.

SHAPIRO: Stacy Horn, you write about a composer I love named Morten Lauridsen. And there's a piece he wrote called the "O Magnum Mysterium, " which many different people have set to music. But I want to play a little bit of his version, and then read a quote that you write in your book from him. Let's listen to a bit of Morten Lauridsen, "O Magnum Mysterium."


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Oh magnum mysterium.

SHAPIRO: And Stacy Horn, you write in your book, when asked point blank in a radio interview about what it is about his music that goes so deep inside us, Lauridsen admitted: I don't know. We strive to go to those places, whether you're a composer, sculptor or a dancer. We try to go to those places that are beyond words, that cannot be explained. For me, these are very sacred places, he says, when you experience something that is so profound, there is no way you can begin to express it through words or really by any other means. Occasionally, as artists, this composer writes, we reach that spot.

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