Five Lessons In Harmony

What choir singing taught me about life, fellowship and happiness

Reem Khokhar Updated: Sep 6, 2020 20:57:05 IST
Five Lessons In Harmony Photo courtesy Siddharth Khandewal

Voices ring through a cold winter evening, singing a mellow song. A thread of ‘oohs’ interweave before a section of male voices begin to utter the lyrics. A few seconds later, an additional layer of voices chime in, amplifying the richness of sound. I am at rehearsal with a choir I have performed with for nine years. I began choral singing in school, but it is only as an adult that I learnt to truly appreciate the music and the value a choir has brought to my life.

The song we are singing—‘Inscription of Hope’—derives its lyrics from an inscription found in a cathedral in Cologne, Germany, where Jewish families, fleeing persecution, hid during World War II. It is a reminder of hope and resilience, even in times of deep despair—'I believe through any trial, there is always a way.'

Articulated by a multitude of voices raised in unison, the message resonates with depth and power, reminding me of the many lessons choral singing has taught me, and how a choir is a remarkable metaphor for unity and harmony. Here are some of them.

Listen intently

How often do we truly listen to others, without being distracted by our own thoughts on how to trump their opinion, or drown out their voices by being more strident? In a noisy, cacophonic world, our ability to listen, absorb and respond thoughtfully is important.

In a group, singers could belt out their parts, trying to stand out in a sea of voices. But choral singing requires listening to the singers near you and to the other vocal sections, in order to blend and balance your own in harmony. A vocal section should sound as one, not as a collection of different voices. This unified sound also illustrates the power of a choir as a great equalizer. In a secular choral group with individuals of different ages, social and professional backgrounds, equality is showcased visually and aurally. Whether you are a CEO or a student, a teenager or an octogenarian, you sing as one with the members of your vocal section. “Sadly, we live in a very divisive world filled with assumed and perceived barriers of every kind,” says Sanjaya Varma, a retired professional who has spent over a decade as a chorister. “Choral singing is about integrating with diverse people. It provides a constant reminder that we are all equally important on stage and in the journey through life.”

Share the spotlight

People often crave attention and adjusting to a choir can be challenging—its emphasis being on the whole, rather than the individual. Even between different vocal sections there can be a tussle for the spotlight. Being a soprano—the singer who usually performs the tune or melody within a choral arrangement—one may sing louder and draw more attention to that vocal line. But there are times when another section like the alto—lowest vocal range for a woman—or the bass—the lowest for a man—may be voicing the prominent harmony. To learn to articulate your part when it is the right time or to step back and let another section shine is an important part of choral dynamics. This offers a great paradigm for restraint and generosity in many other scenarios as well. In teamwork, even the leader or primary on a project must share responsibilities and recognition, allowing every member to shine and be appreciated for their contribution.

Experience the new

Choirs perform music that span genres, generations and geography. Unfamiliar languages, rhythms and styles are often challenging to grasp. But we should all experience this brief discomfort on the path to learning something new in life. Annie Sinha, a social development professional, describes her experience with diverse choral music. “I have sung in many different styles and languages, and particularly enjoy a number of African songs. The rhythm and sheer joyousness of the music, coupled with some invigorating movements on stage, has an uplifting effect on me.”

While its language may be unfamiliar, the music itself can evoke strong emotions—hate, fear, joy, anger, pain. You never really know what you may like till you’ve tried it—an apt lesson in life, whether while travelling, meeting new people or contemplating any kind of change.

reem-khokhar-author_082820092859.pngThe author Reem Khokhar

Walk in another’s shoes

Vocal support illustrates empathy in an interesting way. You may be accustomed to singing the melody while the other sections support, but some songs challenge that status quo. You now have a difficult harmony and must learn to appreciate the effort and focus it takes to master that particular part. An important reminder for when we are quick to judge or criticize people without really putting ourselves in their place.

As with any group, spending time together in a choir leads to friendships and a support group that endure beyond rehearsal time. Vikas Chhabra, a self-employed professional, describes the importance of his choral family. “We all deal with stress of varied intensities. To have a community which can show true empathy, offer support and help lessen a burden, is a blessing.”

Play as a team

As with any team, valuing each others’ role is essential in a choir. For example, tenors may sing the melody and it sounds lovely, but incomplete. Or the altos or basses perform a part that sounds dissonant when sung in isolation. But it all makes sense when interwoven with the rest. The song comes alive, becoming nuanced, layered, rich.

“There’s a tolerance in a choral group that you don’t necessarily find in other social settings,” says Deborah Paul, a development practitioner at the United Nations. “It’s the emotion and the high that you feel when everybody nails a song that you’ve been working on for weeks. There’s just something special in that.” Ideas as simple as tolerance and inclusivity are the most important values that allow people from all walks of life to coexist peacefully.

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