Intern’s Message – Why We Sing Together

The second week of February, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association gathered for a week in Pacific Grove for the Excellence in Ministry Institute. This event is the first of what will hopefully be an ongoing series of continuing education opportunities for Unitarian Universalist ministers. Katie and I were both fortunate to be able to attend.

For my week by the ocean, I chose to attend the “Building A Vocal Community” seminar led by Ysaye Barnwell. Dr. Barnwell is a Unitarian Universalist and one of the members of Sweet Honey in the Rock, the Grammy award-winning African American female a cappella ensemble. She is the author of two of the songs in our Singing the Journey hymnal: Breaths and We Are. Music is a critical part of meaningful worship, and I was thrilled to be able to study with Dr. Barnwell.

Here’s what it was like: we didn’t use a hymnal. We didn’t use sheet music at all. We didn’t even use words projected onto a screen. We stood in a circle so we could see each other. We listened to Dr. Barnwell as she would sing an opening line, her invitation for us to join her. And then we responded, keeping our eyes on her and on each other, keeping our ears open to hear each other. We didn’t try to all sound the same. And we didn’t try to sound perfect, creating some idealized version of each song. We weren’t a choir. We were a community.

It was a powerful experience.

José Antonio Abreu is a Venezuelan musician, activist, and educator. He observes, “An orchestra is a community where the essential and exclusive feature is that it is the only community that comes together with the fundamental objective of agreeing with itself. Therefore the person who plays in an orchestra begins to live the experience of agreement.”

That experience of agreement is undoubtedly part of the power and joy of singing together.

Abreu goes on: “And what does the experience of agreement mean? Team practice, the practice of the group that recognizes itself as interdependent, where everyone is responsible for others and the others are responsible for oneself.”

It seems to me, then, that singing together is an affirmation of two of our Unitarian Universalist principles: the inherent worth and dignity of every person—for each voice has its part to sing—as well as the interdependent web of all existence, the recognition that each voice depends on the others.

No wonder singing is such a significant part of our worship life.

Bright blessings, Sharon