Every week when I lead singing at my church, I signal the pianist to drop out during a verse of one of the hymns. This is a selfish act. Our congregation sings well, and I need to hear them sing unaccompanied, to be held up by and be part of their voices, offered up together in our plain Mennonite Church.
As each of us sings our part, however imperfectly, I am reminded again how much I believe that the a cappella human voice is sacred.
All my life I’ve been shaped by voices singing. Growing up in school and church, I sang in choirs and quartets. The pleasures of blending my often changing voice with the girls and boys around me, responding to a leader’s direction taught me all my really important lessons about community and hard work. To learn a simple tune or to sing a polyphonic madrigal required that I give up a bit of myself to the composer and to others in the choir or congregation We became intimate, sharing breath, voice, text in a way different from any other experience I’ve ever had.
Yet I also came to know that my individual voice mattered. I had to stay on pitch, to sing in rhythm, and, most importantly, to listen. Singing in parts helped me to learned what poet Jean Janzen calls “the world’s secret . . . to enter and be close, yet separate.”
I hear this secret not only in traditional choral or church music. The high harmonies of Appalachian folk songs, the guttural loveliness of Tuban throat singers, the call and response of the Jewish cantor or Muslim imam, these also show what it is like to sing in relation to others, to have bare human voices responding to each other in time.
And as much as I love singing with others, I also love the separate, lonesome a cappella voice. In an age of recorded and reproduced and amplified sound, nothing marks an individual like her own voice lifted in a simple, familiar melody.
When I remember my father, I think most often of his voice, of him singing, not especially well, old hymns—“Tell Me Why” or “The Old Rugged Cross.” I have a video of him, one I cannot bring myself to watch, rocking my newborn daughter as he sings in his baritone, “Count your blessings, name them one by one.”
As a writer, I have had to learn to admit that nothing I’ve written approaches the beauty I experience in the unaccompanied human voice in song. Still, all my writing aspires to this aesthetic. I always find myself, then, in communities both familiar and far away, hoping and listening for those moments when the accompaniment drops away and I hear (and perhaps join in) to this most basic and sacred of acts—the human voice riding on nothing but breath, offering up the mystery of song.