for release April 27, 2001
by Melodie Davis
'Tis A Gift To Sing A Cappella
There is no greater instrument than the human voice. An exaggeration perhaps, but I've been intrigued to find my daughters' generation discovering the excitement and splendor of a cappella music, even in the very secular world of a public university.
A cappella, of course, means singing without any accompaniment, and that's what is fascinating in the groups that are currently popular. Some voices sound out "ta ta ta ta" in rhythmic fashion; others "ba ba ba boom; hiss; shhhhush; ti ti ti ti ti; du du du" and otherwise add enough sounds to make you stop and ponder: are they really doing all that with just their voices?
At my daughter's college, the a cappella groups are completely student run and organized, which to her is part of the attraction as well. There is even a National
Championship of College A Cappella Music, with the finals taking place in late April at Lincoln Center in New York City. Other festivals, such as the Harmony Sweepstakes Regional A Cappella Festival in San Francisco, showcase adult groups. Some are religious in nature, but many sing pop music or whatever style they like.
I grew up Mennonite learning how to sing unaccompanied four-part music from my earliest days. Yet there was a period of time when our church looked at neighboring churches adding pianos and organs to their worship services and buildings and I'll have to say I longed to be like them and be more modern. Singing a cappella was kind of an embarrassment; it was cooler to go to a church that had a piano, and especially an organ.
It wasn't until I got away from my upbringing that I realized what a gift it was to be able to automatically harmonize (truth be told some do it a lot better than others, and I don't do it all that well. But at least I can sing along in a group).
Garrison Keillor, the National Public Radio "Prairie Home Companion" commentator has a piece that speaks of this wonderful gift. I'll have to confess that when I first read it I didn't realize that Lutherans had also grown up with this tradition. Keillor writes: "I have made fun of Lutherans for years; who wouldn't if you lived in Minnesota? But I have also sung with Lutherans and that is one of the main joys of life, along with hot baths and fresh sweet corn. We make fun of Lutherans for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their constant guilt that burns like a pilot light, their lack of speed and also their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese. But nobody sings like them. ... Lutherans are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony. It's a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person's rib cage.... I once sang the bass line of "Children of the Heavenly Father" in a room with about three thousand Lutherans in it; and when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices" (from an e-mail).
So why is it that singing together in four part harmony can bring us to tears? When you are part of the singing, is it the community feeling? Talk about "surround sound!" Mary Oyer, professor emeritus of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, says that music "draws people from their personal circle of thought and experience into a group relationship."
When you are listening, is it the pure beauty of harmonies? Is there some connection between emotion, spirit and experience? It seems to me that stirring, well-performed music connects us with the deep inner craving we have for beauty.
So whatever the reasons, it is exciting to see how this wonderful use of the human voice has come into popularity again... if it ever went out.
For more on this tradition of music and a sound sample (if your computer has a sound card) check out <http://www.thirdway.com/menno/mnfaq15.shtml> or write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.
NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 665 words; end material = 105 words
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