Bart Worden

What is the role of Music in an Ethical Society? What optimally should it be?

“Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast, To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.”
William Congreve, in The Mourning Bride, 1697

Music’s potential to move people, to reach deeply inside ourselves and stir our inmost yearnings, to activate our bodies and inspire us to dance, make it a powerful instrument for building an ethical culture. Music is an important part of most people’s lives and we resonate powerfully with the tones and cadences of pieces we love. We are drawn to it and affected by it.

But music is a difficult concept to pin down (what’s the difference between “music” and “noise”?) and registers differently from person to person (you may strongly dislike the music I most favor, and I may be turned off by what you enjoy). Music can be a vehicle for hate and violence as well as for soothing and connection, can work to divide as well as to unite. Even so, the power of music calls to us and we would do well to find ways to enlist its aid in eliciting the best of us.

The “psycho-motor act,” as my colleague Bob Berson has often said, is important. As members of a Movement that hangs its hat on the motto “Deed Before Creed,” we need always to keep an eye out for activity that encourages us to express our humanity and deepens our connections with one another. Certainly that includes marching, letter-writing, charitable acts, volunteering, and sending money. I believe making music, and especially singing songs together, belongs on that list, too.

Thirty-two years ago, when I first started attending Sunday Platform meetings at the Westchester Ethical Society (as it was then known) I had a mixed experience with the music I heard there. At the time, the Society had engaged the services of a skilled pianist who played beautifully and was a joy to listen to. The selections were classical and encouraged contemplation—which is what I found myself doing: contemplating. The contemplative qualities of the music were a match for the rest of the Sunday Platform experience: our printed programs included a request that there be no applause during the meeting and only one voice was to be heard at a time. It was an atmosphere high in concentration and low in energy, a meditative and passive experience. I yearned for more energy and action.

So when the opportunity arose, I would happily haul out my guitar and lead the congregation in song but that often did not go so well. Our group was not well practiced in singing together and it often felt to me that the songs were sung out of obligation rather than joy, which made the experience tedious and not enlivening. Breaking out of the contemplative atmosphere was not easy or particularly welcome. People felt self conscious about how they would sound to others and, when asked to stand for song, felt irritated. “Too much like church” was a frequent comment.

Despite the reluctance I persevered. To me, the essential characteristic of Ethical Humanism is the drive to overcome the barriers that separate us from one another and that work against the expression of our highest potential. That means stretching ourselves, trying new things, developing our capacities, applying our fullest and most deeply appreciated selves to the (hopefully) joyous task of bringing Ethical Culture to life. As my old therapist would implore, “Be counterphobic!” If you are reluctant, do it anyway and grow from the experience of overcoming your limitations.

Fast forward to today and group singing has become an important part of the Sunday Platform Meeting experience at the Westchester Society. While not universally loved, more often than not people will speak positively about singing together and will voice a sense of loss if we have a morning without a song. So what has changed? Singing a community song has become one of the habits of our congregation and people have gotten used to it being a regular aspect of our time together.

My wife’s grandmother was fond of saying, “you get used to hanging, too” in regard to the less than appealing chores that are part of daily living. And perhaps people have stopped complaining because they don’t expect it would make any difference. I can live with that. In fact, I resonate with the unhappiness and reluctance. I have resented being asked to sing songs with words I disagree with. I have disliked being told to stand and sing when I’ve been perfectly comfortable in my seat.

But standing and singing together can be a powerful psychomotor act, an act that invites us to stretch boundaries and tap into inner resources that might otherwise lay fallow. And what better time to do this than when in the company of our Ethical Humanist communities? Let our Sunday platform meetings be a time of practice and for taking risks.

So let’s close with a song! This is a new song for the Westchester Society and was recommended to me by my colleague, Susan Rose:

Lift Up Your Voice and Sing By Chris Thompson
All you good people,
lift up your voice and sing
If you believe in tomorrow,
lift up your voice and sing

If you can keep your eyes on,
lift up your voice and sing
The hope on the horizon,
lift up your voice and sing

Because when we sing together, we dream together
This sound can make a difference
This song can remind us that we can live together

All you good people,
lift up your voice and sing
If you believe in tomorrow,
lift up your voice and sing
If you can keep your eyes on,
lift up your voice and sing
The hope on the horizon,
lift up your voice and sing

Lift up your voice and sing
Lift up your voice and sing
Lift up your voice and sing

 

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