As everything else changes, the human voice holds its note

Eric Friesen
Eric Friesen: We may have had music before we had a word for it.
Submitted photo

By Eric Friesen

Eric Friesen is a broadcaster, writer, speaker and consultant on arts and culture, based in Ontario, Canada. He is the former host of "The Music Room" on the classical service of Minnesota Public Radio.

I grew up Mennonite, singing grace in four parts. I've been singing ever since, always as an amateur, in church and community choirs. As a broadcaster I have championed choral singing, and now I write about it, and continue to listen with great pleasure.

So I have a vested interest in the state of the human singing voice in the age of Twitter.

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Change happens, whether bad or good. The Internet and social media have transformed our lives and our professions profoundly. We in the arts have to be in the marketplace, and we have to communicate with people where we can reach them.

Social media have shown they can spread the news about choral singing everywhere. My friend Robert Cooper had a YouTube hit with his Chorus Niagara, which performed the Hallelujah Chorus as a flash mob in an Ontario food court. It was an astonishing display of what it means to go viral — 38 million hits and counting, Bob tells me.

My favorite part is the reaction from the Christmas shoppers, as the first singers stand and begin to sing "Hallelujah." The reaction changes from bemused surprise, and then welcome, to wonderment. Handel, who loved spectacle, was applauding in his corner of heaven.

Twitter and Facebook and YouTube — they're here to stay until the next generation sweeps them aside. One day they will be as quaint and lovingly remembered as the LP or the IBM Selectric.

And yet, as this river of time thunders on, there are at least several human pleasures that haven't changed much at all. Singing, we know, is as ancient as life itself. The First Art, it's sometimes called, as old as the cave paintings at Lascaux. As Daniel Levitin has speculated, we may have had music before we had a word for it.

Fashions have changed, and tastes and trends. From plain chant in Hildegaard's time to polyphony in the Renaissance. The 20th century saw new ways to use the human voice: Sprechgesang — half singing, half speaking. There's whispering. Choral recitation, humming, glissando and shouting. But it's still the same voice, the same vocal musculature.

Which brings me to another aspect of the singing experience that hasn't changed: What singing does for the singer. You come to choir practice — say, Wednesday evening — tired after a bad day at work, with lots going on at home, stressed out. But it doesn't take long, after warmups and starting into the repertoire you're working on, for all that stress to begin to fall away. As you sing, you can feel your shoulders lifting, free of the burdens. It's therapy, the cheapest and most dependable therapy.

Our world hurtles on, inventing, discarding. In the midst of all this, the human singing voice is — to borrow from T S Eliot — the still point in the turning world. Singing in groups, singing in parts, some paid, some not paid, some trained, some not trained ... the human voice is enchanting us, moving us to stop for just a moment to catch a glimpse of heaven.

This commentary is adapted from a talk Eric Friesen delivered Thursday at the Chorus America conference in Minneapolis.