ImageHow Can We Keep From Singing
by Joan Oliver Goldsmith

I’ve read this book before, but it’s one of those that’s always worth reading again. Especially now, in this season of music. I’ve been wandering gently though its pages for the past few weeks, letting it mix with my thoughts as I’ve sung my way through Advent and Christmas and New Year’s and Epiphany.

This is a book for singers like me, probably like you and like most of us. We just like to sing, that’s all. Singing feels good, physically, emotionally, spiritually. Singing opens up the lungs, the heart, the whole personality. Singing heals hurt and repairs brokenness. Singing sets joy at liberty and invites us to ring like bells. Yes, singing just feels good, and that’s the reason why we want to do it, as often as possible, both alone and in company.

  • Human beings sing because we have to. When we’re happy or sad or angry, energy builds up inside. Then, before the pressure can do damage, a valve opens and we cry or laugh or sing. And once those tears or notes are outside of us, the universe shifts a little. Tears dry cool on the cheek. Laughter infects those around us. And as for notes, well, “the blues is celebration,” Odetta said, “because when you take sorrow and turn it into music, you transform it.”

Most of us have fairly average vocal equipment. We are not Maria Callas. We are not even Judy Garland. We’re just your average Jane or Joe. We can carry a tune if it’s in our comfortable range. We can even harmonize a bit as long as it’s not too unusual a harmony. We don’t aspire to be soloists or stars. We just want to sing.

The author quotes a few statistics — how many millions of people sing in choral societies, community choruses, church choirs, folk-singing societies and barbershop groups. Twenty million Americans — about ten percent of the population — sing in such public ways. More folks out there are actively singing than the star-focused music industry would suggest. And, as the author points out, these are only people singing with officially counted groups. There are also all the uncounted folks jamming with friends in basements and living rooms, singing at family reunions, school picnics, and in the privacy of the bathroom shower. These numbers reassure us that we aren’t alone; we’ve got plenty of company.

Chapter by chapter, Joan Goldsmith explores the links she sees between Music and Life, as viewed from her place in the third row of the alto section of the Minnesota Chorale. She draws out the meaning of amateur music in her own experiences, and invites us to do the same from our own life’s perspective. When we look at ouselves in a state of music, what else do we see happening? What do we grow to understand about friendships, about failure, about leading and following, about living with suffering, about discovering the place we’re most at home, and about beginning new challenges?

Different chapters have resonated more strongly with me at different times, depending on where I’ve been in my life at each reading. A few years ago, the first time I read this book, I was drawn to the lessons on leading and following. I had been learning to really appreciate an exceptionally good supervisor at work, and at the same time learning to understand why my own brief stint in a low-level leadership position had been both uncomfortable and unsuccessful.

Why was my supervisor, or any good leader, so good? The author’s eye for good — and not-so-good — conductors shows us what good leaders are. A good conductor is not an autocrat drilling his choir to respond like a machine. He is more like a scout or guide, exploring the music ahead and charting a course through it, then showing the others the lie of the land so they can learn to see it, too.

As for my own failure, I was learning to see that although I didn’t have the qualities of a good leader, I did have a healthy dollop of the traits of a good follower. But first, as the author points out, we need to stop thinking of followers are mere robots or bleating sheep. We need to recognize that being a good follower also requires certain talents. Following intelligently demands a certain amount of self-direction, an ability to read the overall direction of movement and adjust course without waiting for specific orders, to respond to the needs of the moment in a way that serves the overall mission. These are the gifts of a good follower, gifts that are worth a lot to a good leader.

On this re-reading, one chapter that caught at me strongly was the one about “Finding your Tessitura”. The author discovered, after several bouts of laryngitis, that she was more at home in the alto section than in amongst the sopranos, a discovery of her “tessitura”. She explains that tessitura means that part of your vocal range where you’re comfortable and at home. Your range is wider than this; your range stretches to the highest and lowest notes you can reach. But your tessitura is where you want to be most of the time. A song that is mostly in a comfortable range, while including occasional notes that test your voice, is a very different thing from a song that is almost entirely in the top notes of your ability. What is a very do-able challenge now and then can become exhausting to the point of tears if we try to stay there constantly.

The lesson extends beyond music. A job which tests us beyond our comfort zone once in a while is good for us. It stretches our living and working range in the same way occasional high or low notes stretch our singing range. But a job which keeps us constantly stretched beyond comfort day after day after day, until we are stressed and exhausted, is not a job that fits us well. Let us not forget to periodically stretch for those top and bottom notes that limber up our muscles. But let us center ourselves for normal daily living in our natural tessitura, the place where we are at home, because that’s where our best work comes most reliably. That’s where our strength lies, where we’ll be able to endure for the long haul.

The other chapter that grabbed my attention this time was the one on “composting” mistakes. Composting is a more productive alternative than either whisking my life’s messes directly out of sight into the trash or letting them just lie there stinking up the house. A mistake, given enough time to marinade and stew, might just turn into richly productive soil.

This is an encouraging thought for someone my age, who has a lot of decades of mistakes to look back at. To give up attempting something, simply because I keep getting it wrong every single time, is like tossing it into the trash. It may seem like a quick clean-up to the mess, but it does nothing but pile up landfills of accumulated mistakes. Composting means being willing to put up with the smell of the mistake for awhile, during the composting stage; that is, to keep on trying to do whatever it is I’m messing up, but to do it without losing the hope of eventually getting it right.

  • In this life, we make the best mistakes we know how to make. Then, with any luck, we go out and make new ones. I don’t make mistakes when I watch TV or take a walk. These activities are pleasant and restful. But I could not make a life of them. After all, the easiest way to avoid wrong notes is never to open your mouth and sing. What a mistake that would be!