Chapter 3.Self-Knowledge: Behaviours


The Importance of Singing Badly

Most of what we would really like to do is annihilated long before its possible birth by a relentlessly forensic and masochistic sense of our own incompetence. We can’t possibly invite people to dinner at home because we’re not really great cooks; we can’t show anyone the poem we’ve written because it’s not quite right yet; we won’t strip off and dive into the sea because our body’s not in beach shape. We would so much like to love, live, be free, be authentic but…

Few activities fit more neatly into this category of throttled aspiration than singing. How deeply we would like to give it a go, but how well we know our absurdity. We’re reluctant even to try to string a few notes together in solitude. We could be walking in a desert and still not feel free to do more than hum, so deeply have we internalised our worry about judgment.

Which is a particular pity because singing is amongst the most basic forms of expression at which no one could ever – in any priori way – be bad. Our remote ancestors probably sang before they could speak; and as babies we all likely responded to a lullaby long before we could comprehend the actual words. 

More or less all societies except our own have made collective singing a central ritual of communal existence. Nowadays, even the remaining fragments of opportunity – in a church or on the football terraces – are often inaccessible; some part of us might long to join in and merge our own weak and out of tune voice with the crowd; but these occasions can feel like they belong to others whose outlook and convictions we don’t directly share. 

The ideal collective anthem has an easy enough, forgiving tune – we can follow the phrasing and the lilt of the melody, even if (to an expert ear) we’re never quite in key. But it also expresses ideas that are deeply meaningful to us. 

Some good options for a singing exercise: 

Encouragement: The Beatles: Hey Jude

Kindness: The aria ‘Blow gently you breezes’ from Act I of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte

Universality: Beethoven Ode to Joy 

The words are distributed, someone takes us quickly through the tune, so we’ve all got at least the minimum basics. Then the lights are lowered a bit – to create a sense of occasion; there’s an awesome amplifier to power things on, the music comes on, just an introductory bit of melody and then we’re given the signal to start. Of course we lose the timing of the words, we put the stress sometimes on the wrong point; our breathing is all wrong; but we’re doing it. We’re soaring. 

We’re aware, as we sing, that others are saying – believing – the same things: they, like us, are breaking through the barrier of embarrassment and awkwardness to join with us in creating this superlative collective moment. 

Admiration isn’t enough, we need to participate with our own authentic, and far from perfect, voices 

From this point of view, the greatest glory of collective singing isn’t performance by a famous choir. It’s rather, in the back room of a pub or around a campfire or in someone’s house, when people who can’t really sing, manage to sing together and what they sing gives collective voice to the buried longings of each of their flawed, lonely and yearning hearts. 

And this moment singing isn’t just about singing. We’re encountering a fundamental idea: that we don’t need to be good at something, anything for us to join in. That we belong here anyway. That we deserve to exist. Others – much more than we think – are like us; they’re not judging us harshly most of the time; they’re wishing that they, themselves, could take the step we’re taking and – in fact – they are finding some of the encouragement they need precisely in our own inept, gloriously out of key but utterly genuine and beautiful efforts. 

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