Penn State laureate poses the question: Who sings?

April 15, 2010

By Anthony Leach, 2009-10 Penn State laureate

Who sings?
We sing. Parents sing to their children, older siblings sing with younger siblings, we sing at public gatherings for worship and other celebrations. Friends sing with each other in social and recreation contexts. Sometimes we sing alone. Wherever people gather, singing may occur either according to plan or spontaneously.

Why do we sing?
Because we can. The moment when speech becomes song may be spontaneous, especially if it is a song that has already been heard or experienced by others. True joy comes when a new song emerges from within the people as it reflects the common bond that brings us together. Some of the great moments in musical theatre and opera occur when the song lyric moves the action of the dramatic event forward.

When do we sing?
When we are happy, when we are sad, when there is no other way to express ourselves in words alone. Sometimes we dance as we sing or use instruments to emphasize aspects of the song. This may be a cultural or learned response, but when we can't say a word, humming will do just fine!

What is our song?
The song serves the purpose for which it is intended. It may be a reflection from an earlier encounter. It may be something that helps one to better understand a current trend or experience. It may encapsulate a historical or current event and propel it forward in the experience of our community and/or world. It usually tells a story of an experience that one would like to remember and/or share with others.

How do we learn the song?
Songs are the gifts we share with others. Sometimes a song is learned by responding to the "call" that a song-leader provides. At other times, a composer or arranger shares their creative product that is rehearsed by singers to be presented in a public context. Congregational singing in Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim or other houses of worship become a shared communal/spiritual experience for all present. Sports fans gathered in soccer, football, basketball or other stadiums for athletic events sing national anthems and recreational songs. Choirs in educational settings spend countless hours mastering selections from the traditional choral canon of historical, cultural and inspirational settings that will be performed in school auditoriums, shopping malls, adjudications and competitions and in collaboration with peer choirs. Whether instruments are used to support singing is not a requirement because in every situation, we use our singing voice as the mode of transmission. Young singers, older singers, trained singers, some who are not sure of their singing voice -- all may participate regardless of experience.

What is my song?
It began when I was a young child sitting at the piano with my mother. Our family sang at home, at church, in the car and with others. For the longest time, I thought that everyone sang at home. Eventually I learned that singing well required time on task in rehearsal, but more important to me was to recognize that the context in which singing occurred affected the function of the music. By the time I was 12 years old, I was invited to share aspects of my limited singing experience with others. What a thrill for me to realize that the music that surrounded my formative years could be shared with others. More important was the realization that I could be paid to share my song, especially at church, which was a very important part of my African-American culture. I know now as a professional music educator that I was immersed in the oral and aural tradition of African-American music, which is rich in sacred hymns, spirituals, traditional gospel, anthems, large and small choirs, phenomenal soloists and beyond the church experience, rhythm and blues, jazz and soul music that framed so much of the music from the '50s and '60s in American culture.

My song is a cross-cultural embrace of learned compositions from the rich legacy of choral music from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Neo-Romantic periods, as well as the 20th and early 21st centuries. Framing this tradition is my interest in the music of the people, which some refer to as "folk music," while others simply call it indigenous music. I've learned that if I am to be an informed and responsive musician educator, I need to know and understand how song is valued within a culture and what its impact may be beyond the point of origin. It's a pretty exciting and amazing journey that keeps me thinking about the next program that any of my ensembles at Penn State and others for whom I am responsible will share with audiences near and far.

Penn State alumnus Fred Waring popularized a slogan to "Keep America Singing" as his ensemble, The Pennsylvanians, toured across America for many, many years. I recognize that I can't "Keep America Singing," but I can do my part through my outreach effort in the Penn State School of Music and New Bethel Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and my affiliation with the American Choral Directors Association, Music Educators National Conference and the Gospel Music Workshop of America to all who enter my world of choral singing to listen to my story, discover a new story that may be cultural or historical and ultimately share their story through choral singing.

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Leach will direct one of his Penn State choirs, Essence of Joy, on Sunday, April 24, at the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association (PMEA) Conference in Pittsburgh, and again from Saturday, May 8, through Thursday, May 13, during a post-semester tour of Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Pittsburgh. For past articles by the Penn State laureate as well as other related content, visit online.

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    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated November 18, 2010