"A really bad singer learns to sing then writes a book about it." That was Tim Falconer's starting point for Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music. His journey from the idea in 2007 to the book's publication wasn't so straight forward and he dealt with plenty of rejection by publishers. But he stuck with it and this year the book hit the shelves. In this excerpt, Falconer talks about the important bonding element of people singing together. It's from the chapter titled: “Track Three: For the Sake of the Song”
I asked clinical psychologist Alex Russell for his thoughts on children and music. Before Russell became a psychologist, he wanted to be a composer and he’d even started his university career studying music. A few years ago, I helped him write a book on parenting, and I knew he had strong opinions about the role of play in childhood development.
He started by reiterating what many others have told me: music creates bonds between people. As someone who doesn’t make music with other people, I understood that only on a theoretical level. So he put it in terms I could understand: “We can say, I love my wife or I love my children, but when we’re doing music, we’re actually connecting emotionally, like we do when we have sex with one person. I can talk about my lover — I love my lover — but when I’m actually making love to my lover I’m experiencing a connection, a lived connection.” There are other ways to have this experience, such as a profound, intimate conversation. But making music together may be the best way for two or more people to connect.
I saw thousands of people connect when I travelled to Chicago in 1994. My friends and I had flown to the Windy City to watch a hockey game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Well, really, we went there for the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
It was the most powerful rendition of an anthem I have ever witnessed. Two events — one planned, one tragic — only served to heighten the emotions in the building that night. First, it was the last regular season game to be played at the sixty-five-year-old arena before it gave way to a new one designed to maximize revenue. Second, Wayne Messmer, the man who sang the anthems at the stadium, was fighting for his life in hospital. A fifteen-year-old with a handgun had shot him in the neck five days earlier.
Announcer Pat Foley read a statement from Wayne Messmer and then introduced Kathleen Messmer, who stood where her husband should have been: beside an honour guard in the organ box. Foley went on to ask the crowd to “raise the roof ” for the injured singer during the taped anthems. After “O Canada” — which more people in Chicago sang than do at games in Toronto — it was time for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
As a schoolboy, I was taught to stand at attention during a national anthem. In Chicago Stadium, however, people did it differently. They sang, clapped, cheered, whistled, lit sparklers, punched balloons in the air, and generally worked themselves into ecstasy. It’s a tradition that had begun about a decade earlier and then took on a life of its own during the first Gulf War.
From the first note, the noise was deafening and the emotion high. But what astonished me was how it built. With each bar, the thunder defied logic by growing louder. Meanwhile, the eyes of the working-class Chicago men — not to mention the odd Canadian visitor — grew misty.
Cognitive psychologist Frank Russo’s working hypothesis, which reflects his ideas about music as movement, is that when we sing together we move together in perfect synchrony. This allows us to feel emotion in the music and to feel connected as a group, opening us up to trust, understand, and like the people we are singing with. The reason we sing national anthems isn’t just patriotism (or jingoism, depending on your point of view), it’s because singing them makes people feel they belong. “It’s a shame that we can’t get a new song every month,” said Russo, “because the national anthem loses some of its flavour after a while.”
Andrew Cash, who was in the respected Toronto punk band L’Étranger and then enjoyed a successful solo career, had a similar experience while travelling through India in the 1980s. Cash, who later served as a member of Parliament, found himself on a packed train at 7 a.m. He was the only Westerner in a car full of young men commuting to a textile factory outside Mumbai. Seeing his guitar, they asked him to sing. He declined. Surprised, they pressed him again, and when that didn’t work, one man said, “Okay, we’ll sing first.”
The workers traded songs for half an hour until Cash finally pulled out his guitar. The other passengers didn’t know “Monday Morning on the Move,” a song Cash had written about going to work, and they spoke little English. But they sang along anyway, making up the words as they went. Years later, Cash still marvels at how comfortable the young men on the train were singing out loud, in public, and at such an early hour. “It was no big deal,” he told me, “just something they did.”
The loss of play — musical or otherwise — concerns Russell, and he’s seen it decline even in the last generation. We’re not giving children a chance to play the way they have for thousands and thousands of years of human civilization. Because we’re too focused on making sure kids develop skills and play according to sets of rules, we aren’t allowing them to go out and muck about and create their own play. Music is the perfect example of this. “We’re not giving human beings a chance to just make a whole lot of fucking noise together and it doesn’t matter how good or bad,” he said. “It’s the doing of it that matters.”
And yet he understands why we’re self-conscious about singing in public, especially people who were told at a young age that they can’t or shouldn’t sing. “There’s something about singing that feels deeply revealing of the self,” he said, noting that it’s not the same when you’re playing an instrument or even clapping. “It’s almost like taking your clothes off. You’re revealing something very personal about yourself when you sing.”
Excerpt from Bad Singer copyright 2016, by Tim Falconer. Reproduced by permission of House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto. www.houseofanansi.com
Watch Nam Kiwanuka's conversation with Tim Falconer and Micah Barnes tonight on The Agenda in the Summer at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.
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