When was the last time you sang with a group? I don’t mean “Happy Birthday” or a mumbled national anthem at the ball game. I’m talking about the power and joy that comes from singing fearlessly with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of others in an old-fashioned chorus, knowing from the first note that you are part of something quite literally bigger than yourself. It’s a transporting experience. “Sweet Caroline” doesn’t come close.
Countless studies have found that communal singing is beneficial physically (all that oxygen), emotionally, and spiritually. According to the advocacy group Chorus America, 54 million people in the United States sing with some kind of group — or at least they did before the COVID-19 pandemic muzzled so many. Still, outside of religious congregations or the lubrication of several drinks at a bar, many Americans find singing in front of others vaguely embarrassing.
Since we’re entering the season of song, I spoke with choral director Nick Page about the ineffable pull that voices in harmony can have on our souls.
“Singing is a deeply spiritual experience because you are connecting to the universe, and that’s not just a metaphor,” he said. “Einstein said that atoms are made up of resonance; when one atom vibrates, the atoms of the universe vibrate. It’s a physical feeling but also a consciousness.”
Page is retiring after 32 years leading the Mystic Chorale, a nonprofit amateur chorus based in Arlington (I sang with the group on two occasions going back some 20 years). His farewell concert, at Cary Hall in Lexington, will be on Dec. 8, his 70th birthday.
“A lot of us today live second-hand lives,” Page said, nodding to his iPhone and the other devices through which we passively receive the world. “Singing in a chorus is creating something first-hand.”
Page is a venerated musical and social force in Greater Boston, with reliably sold-out concerts that celebrate social justice along with the enthralling power of music. He has been an educator, author, composer, and conductor, honoring musical traditions from South Africa to Israel to Appalachia.
His programs tap a fertile repertoire. One year he added U2′s rock anthem “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” to a gospel lineup. It seems radical until you realize that U2 actually performed the song with Harlem’s New Voices of Freedom gospel choir at Madison Square Garden. Other programs have included everything from 19th-century shape-note singing to Serbian folk tunes to Lady Gaga.
When Page was a teenager, he volunteered to handle the microphones at the annual town meeting in Lexington, where his father was an elected member. The power of a room full of voices saying “aye” or “nay” in unison thrilled him, he says. “I just fell in love with that sound: the resonance of democracy.”
Democracy is alive and well in a community chorus, despite the necessity of a conductor to lead the way. The first principle of harmony, after all, is to blend. That requires getting your ego out of the way.
“There is a sense of humility that’s needed to make it work,” he said. Page is especially conscious of this when interpreting gospel or a South African freedom song. “As a white person doing the music of the Black world, you have to have humility.” He says the gospel concerts are less performances than “offerings.”
Like many people who caught the choral bug, I started singing in grade school recitals, our playlists full of nostalgic Americana like “Shenandoah” and “Roll on Columbia” (“Your power is turning our darkness to dawn!”) By the time I reached high school I was singing selections from the Bach B minor Mass and “Hair.” Choral advocates worry about the hollowing out of music arts in the public schools; it’s not uncommon for elementary school students to get fewer than 45 minutes of music education a week. They urge parents to promote data showing how singing improves academic performance as well as social and emotional skills. I may be preaching to the choir here, but music is also valuable for its own glorious sake.
Three years of an isolating pandemic have mutated into a national epidemic of loneliness. What passes for communal experience these days is a trending meme. This is why we — singers and audiences alike — need the expressive connection, the rich spectrum of sound, and the undeniable goosebumps of many voices lifted as one.
So let heaven and nature sing.
You try, too.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.