‘Praise the Lord! We are a musical nation.’ So states a delighted Reverend Eli Jenkins in the dreamy somewhere-and-nowhere world of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. And so it would seem that we, as people in the land of Cymru – and I have chosen my word carefully here, the word ‘Wales’ has its roots in the word foreigner, whereas the word ‘Cymru’ belongs to the word brother or compatriot, we are not foreigners, we belong to each other – are prone to a bit of singing here and there. When we wait for the result of an adjudication, we sing … when it’s half time at a match, we sing … when a crowd of people get together socially, we sing … and more often than not, we sing hymns. These hymns are knitted into our DNA. We might not be regular chapel or churchgoers but we know the words to the hymns and we delight in their poetry, their soaring oration, the crescendo of notes that results in the feeling of elation and the feeling of belonging that singing together gives us – and whether we believe or not, we are raised to a better state of being.
And often a hymn sung a hundred times over connects us to a time that has passed, to loved ones who are no longer here, to that mysterious place where we can never go, the past, and as the author L. P. Hartley famously said at the beginning of his novel The Go-Between, ‘The past is a foreign country.’ So singing hymns is a treasure far more than the words themselves – this rich and beautiful, concise form of literature – as they give us a little precious access to that elusive past.
But what is so brilliant about hymns? A good hymn is simple and direct, it conveys a message or experience clearly, and that simplicity can represent something far more complex and deep. Often, a hymn tells a big story, an epic tale even, in a few words, and therein lies its glory – less is definitely more in this case. And as we sing those hymns, we share the experiences of those who first wrote the words, it is an opportunity for us to feel the thrill for ourselves. We are able to reach back through the years and almost touch Ann Griffiths, Williams Pantycelyn, David Charles, Gwilym Hiraethog, Robert ap Gwilym Ddu and the many others – amazing. Usually, the feelings expressed in hymns range from elation through to despair, love, sadness and joy, illuminating the gamut of emotions we will surely experience individually as we walk through life with Jesus and with God.
The same is true of carols. We sing them every Christmas, the same songs, telling the same story and, like placing a layer of wrapping paper on the year that has passed, the words become even more precious and important to us, for a myriad of reasons. They remind us of years gone past, they remind us of loved ones no longer alive, they remind us of our childhood and of simpler times, and they remind us of the dazzling simplicity of this one truly amazing message that God so loved the world, he sent his only son to earth.
Recent research shows that being a member of a choir can help minimise the symptoms of stress. In a conference on student mental health held last year, Professor Sir Simon Wessely stated that life can be tough for students and that the mental health services available are not always effective at getting to grips with the great demand there is and that they struggle to meet the need. He identified loneliness as a major factor in causing stress. Life is difficult for many of us of course, not just for students, and loneliness is a common and crippling experience in our society.
Professor Wessely notes that he would like to see trials being held to see what the effect of taking part in community activity would be on student mental health e.g. sport, drama and choirs. Ah! Choirs! He felt that being a part of a strong social network, such as a choir, could work better at combatting stress than seeking professional help, there is less stigma attached to being a member of a choir.
So, we know that being a member of a choir is good for you, good for your body, good for your mind. All good. Indeed, singing out loudly is better than a yoga session or a workout in the gym as far as health benefits go, or so they say. Singing brings with it physical and emotional benefits, an increase in aerobic exercise, better breathing, better body posture, a more positive outlook on life, improved confidence and self-respect. Singing out loud on your own can be a good thing as the body is used to create noise and that in turn creates endorphins, it creates joy in the body and in the brain. Singing has a beneficial effect on many parts of the brain. But singing with other people is even better, because you belong to something that is bigger than just you. And it’s important that we feel we belong in this world, so if we discover our tribe through singing, well more power to us. And what are we as a congregation in church, if not a choir of people?
We also know that singing is a good thing for people with dementia as it has a positive effect on the body and even though the mind might be deteriorating, the body ‘remembers’ positive experiences. As well as this, the injured brain can remember old songs, this is nothing short of miraculous and suddenly, people who have lost the ability to speak, can remember a song from years ago and … they … sing. Boy do they sing!
So, are Christians happier that other people? We remember the excellent words of encouragement given by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians: ‘Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord.’ Every Sunday, we come together to sing, to praise and to extol God. We also get our physical workout through our singing and as we stand in the congregation, we also feel that we belong to our church and to God’s family and on top of that we get to sing the Lord’s praises – that, I believe, is a total bargain, three things for the price of one.
And in the words of legendary Ella Fitzgerald, ‘The only thing better than singing – is more singing.’ Amen to that.
Elinor Wyn Reynolds
Union of Welsh Independents