Often in Master Chorus Eastside concerts I incorporate a few sing alongs. We included a couple in our Simply Gershwin concert last weekend, and sing alongs play an especially strong role in our All-American Independence Celebration concerts just before the 4th of July. We’ve done this for years, and sometimes I am asked why. After all, it’s quite unusual for sing alongs to be a part of a choral concert.
There are several reasons for inviting our audience to join us in communal singing, but I recently read an article in the April edition of Choral Journal that crystallized one particular aspect of this issue. The article, Exploring Communal Song and Memory Through Historical Hymnody, asks: “Are we losing a culture of song?” It’s a good question to ask.
There have been times and places in American history when communal singing was much more prevalent: in churches, schools, during Christmas, at revival meetings, frontier gatherings, parlors, any place where people met together to share work or worship or education or fun. Tin Pan Alley for example, the training ground for George Gershwin and the source for the sing alongs in our concert, produced sheet music for amateurs to sing and play in their homes. And sing them America did; an entire body of work was fostered that we Americans knew and sang together as a people, not just via Tin Pan Alley, but through churches (even the racially divided American church sang many of the same hymns) and schools as well.
These songs and hymns still exist today, but I fear they are fading. The article mentions an eight-year-old girl who knows shocking pop-song lyrics but doesn’t know Silent Night. Music making has become increasingly electronic, concertized, media-driven, powered by amplifiers, and microphone oriented. More and more we sit and listen as others make music. We have a wealth of music at our finger tips, we can download almost any song we want, but…but…but… what are we losing? A phrase surfaced in this article, a chapter title from a book (by Gabe Huck) that really grabbed my attention: Surrounded by Music, Robbed of Song.
Robbed of song; it’s a disturbing thought. Is it true? I don’t know for sure, but I hope not. At our Independence shows we invite the audience to join us in songs such as Yankee Doodle, I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, Skip to My Lou, This Land is Your Land, and the audience always responds heartily. At our Gershwin concert nearly everyone sang our Tin Pan Alley picks.
Perhaps all is not lost yet. As long as we are singing together, there is hope. So join in with the great Al Jolson and sing the Tin Pan Alley hit, By the Light of the Silvery Moon! And invite your family to sing too!
Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside