Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Healing Power of Church Choirs

Okay, I’ll admit that I inserted church in that title because I direct a church choir, and I am zealous for the preservation of church choirs. I’ll explain more about that below. But let’s begin by recognizing that choirs—church and otherwise—have healing properties.

In his book Beauty and the Soul, Piero Ferrucci illustrates the power of music to heal by telling a story about a group of French monks.

Shortly after the 1960s liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, 70 out of 90 monks in a particular Benedictine monastery grew strangely ill. “They were lethargic, depressed, unable to carry out their normal tasks,” writes Ferrucci. Various medical experts came to study the monastery, but only one—a research audiologist named Tomatis—was able to identify their problem.

Only one thing had changed in their lives. Before the Vatican II reforms, the monks had chanted eight or nine times a day for 10 to 20 minutes at time. After the reforms, they hardly chanted at all. “Tomatis prescribed a return to the past order, and within weeks all the monks recovered,” Ferrucci reports.

* * *

What are we to make of this story? Scientifically, it is hard to say. But it provokes several key ideas.

First, monastic chant—although it is sung in unison--creates a kind of interpersonal harmony. Good unison singing attunes us not just to notes but also to the rhythms of a group. When we sing together, we breathe together. We become something organic. Ferrucci reminds us that singing in chorus is a social activity and that “there is no better example of social inclusion” than a chorus.

Second, chant is meditative. Meditation on a deeply spiritual text, such as the psalms, canticles, and ancient hymns, attunes us to truth. When we are out of tune with truth, we become dis-eased. We can only be healthy when we are in tune with the truth.

Third, singing is physical. Those who don’t do it much may not realize how important posture and breathing are to proper singing, but there is certainly a heathful property to practicing the proper postures and diaphragmatic breathing demanded by singing.

* * *

Ferrucci writes that since Tomatis’s experience with the monks, many studies have been done that demonstrate the link between healing and singing in chorus. He goes on to list the many healing uses to which music is now put in hospices, in psychiatric wards, in pain management programs, and in neonatal care units.

Remember the title of Ferrucci’s book: Beauty and the Soul. While we can quantify the aerobic benefits to body tissues that proper breathing brings, beauty eludes measurement. But surely beauty is as important as any other factor in music’s healing power.

* * *

Now let me explain why in the title of this post I modified choir with the word church: “The Healing Power of Church Choirs.”

As more and more of our churches allow praise bands to edge out church choirs, they are not merely replacing the old-fashioned with the contemporary. They are not merely exchanging one cultural style for another.

When worship bands edge out church choirs, they are also robbing one segment of the congregation of the healing power of choral singing. In addition, they are depriving the whole congregation of the unique support a choir provides for the singing of the gathered people of God. Many praise bands discourage congregational singing, whether because of the sheer volume of their playing or because of the solo performance style of the music they lead. A good amateur church choir, properly located in an acoustically vibrant worship space, can provide incredible encouragement to the less trained singers in the congregation.

Preserve our church choirs. They are important for the emotional, social, and spiritual health of our congregations.

* * *

Beauty and the Soul will be published by Tarcher/Penguin on August 20. Order it here.

Image: the children’s choir in which the author first learned to sing.

Read more!