"I can't breathe!" is the horrifying refrain we hear echoing around us in these desperate days. Breath means life itself, and to watch it snuffed out in front of our eyes is the stuff of nightmares. . . and a mandate for social change.
Breathing is at the center of another ongoing crisis in the world, as it has become clear that COVID-19 spreads principally through our breath. We must cover our mouths and keep distant to avoid infection. To have the virus take away our choirs and choruses and communal celebrations seems like a cruel deprivation.
However, choral music isn't dead: it's just temporarily out of reach. Song itself is available to us with every breath. We can weep for what is missing -- or we can triumph over adversity with our individual voices. Here is one way that needs no book or lesson or conductor or audience. Try it!
At the beginning, a baby is born, takes its first breath, and lets it out in sound.
That first cry is the first song, and that ability is with us all our life long.
We breathe in air in order to live, and we breathe out air because we must
in order to breathe in again,
and the possibility of song is always with us, with every breath.
Of course singing together will be the last action returned to us
in the present emergency.
Nothing is closer to our inward expression, to the core of our humanity,
than breath let out in song.
Of course it is dangerous! When we share song, we share breath and life.
We must value it, save it for safe time -- and spend it now in unsafe time.
We don’t have to be together to sing.
No one will be gladder than I when we can sing together again.
I had never realized how much I need human touch, human sympathy,
human voices blending with mine in patterns of song.
But let’s use this time that is given us to reconnect with our beginnings.
Listen to the birds!
They have songs in choruses that live from generation to generation.
They have daily concerts that arise from nothing but the gift of life.
What can we do, now today, here in this place, to respond to that imperative?
We can sing.
Not in the way we are used to, with our wonderful repertoire and choirs large and small
and lessons and rehearsals and concerts.
But alone. By ourselves. For no reason but the gift of song.
Be quiet. Sit down. Sink into the silence. Listen to your breath: in, out, in, out.
Awaken the bird in your throat and hear what it wants to do.
Allow it to go where it wants.
One long descending sigh or a siren wail.
High, low, fast, slow, with words or without.
If it turns into something you’ve heard before, let it.
If you forget the words, make them up or leave them out.
If it just wants to sit there with you, unchanging, let it.
It is your breath turning into song. Always there, always ready to be listened to.
It’s our breath, our song. We can sing alone or share it with those living with us.
Sing to babies: they listen and understand.
Sing with children – often! Share their songs; awaken their throats.
Sing to trees and rivers and sunsets and cliffs.
Sing because we have the breath of life and are grateful.
No one can take away from us the ability to sing. Remember that it is always present in our throats, ready to help us through both the storms and the calms of our lives. And think how well we will sing when we are able once again to join our voices in chorus! All that stored up song will burst forth in world-wide celebration. And perhaps we will be reminded that when we sing together we are at our best, affirming our common humanity and giving thanks for the gift of life and breath. Just like the birds. Life Song.