Why I Think the Peace Choir is Important
The Peace Choir was active from 2006 to 2008
Powerful music has been at the center of every important social movement. Music opens hearts and minds to new ideas, unifies people in common endeavor, and motivates change. We need only remember the protest songs of the Anti-War Movement and the freedom songs of the Civil Rights Movement to know that the right music at the right time can express the deepest longings of an entire generation and galvanize them to action.
What is it that gives music such power? I believe that music is the first language of every human being. In the womb we grow familiar with the cadences of our mother’s heartbeat, breathing, and movement. Though we are not equipped to understand the meaning of her words, we absorb the melody of her speech. From that moment in our prenatal development when our auditory nerves conduct the first signal, we are exposed to variations in the pitch and tempo of our mother's voice in association with physiological components of her emotional states. Blood of her blood, flesh of her flesh, we learn the meaning of her body music.
This communication becomes a duet at the moment of birth. Before speech develops, a mother must interpret the “musical” qualities of her infant’s vocalizations in order to determine its needs. Parents quickly learn the difference between the sound of a baby’s cry of pain and the whine of fatigue.
If this ability to respond to musical elements is essential to human survival, one would expect it to be “hard-wired” into the brain and indeed, research supports this notion. In Arts With the Brain in Mind, Eric Jensen writes: “Music helps you think by activating and synchronizing neural firing patterns that orchestrate and connect multiple brain sites.” Music increases brain “coherence”—coordinated activity in different parts of the brain, and inter-hemispheric brain activity for auditory processing. Simply put, music activates multiple brain sites and stimulates them to work together. Could it be that this is why a thought can become so much more powerful and easily understood when expressed as a lyric accompanied by music? Is this the reason we can sometimes feel so alive, centered, and transformed when participating in a musical experience? Other activities make use of specific areas of the brain, whereas music “turns us on” more completely. In a way, we are never more whole, more completely ourselves than when we are listening/participating in music.
Foundational to my work with the Peace Choir is my belief that making music makes us whole and unifies us with others. I reject the idea that music is the exclusive province of special individuals with rare talents. I believe that the ability to make music is a universal human trait, and an essential part of the human experience. Because I welcome everyone to sing with the Peace Choir, I endeavor to make the process as simple as possible. I emphasize that perfect vocal technique is not a prerequisite! Anyone who is willing to sing a vision of peace into the world is encouraged to join. Here are my guidelines:
If you are breathing, you have already passed the audition.
No experience is necessary, and you do not have to read music.
A single one-hour rehearsal is all that is required.
I hold rehearsals at different times and locations during the month leading up to a concert. I pass out booklets of lyrics, and the music is learned by call and response as in the oral tradition. As we start singing I usually notice some roughness in the blend of voices. Not everyone is perfectly on pitch, and some voices are too loud. I work slowly through the first few songs. Giving the instruction “sing back to me what I sing to you,” I present a chorus in short phrases the singers can echo, and I repeat any that need refining. We sing through a song several times this way. When they are ready to sing in unison with me, I encourage them to watch me instead of looking at their lyric books. Working with young children taught me the magic of saying, “Copy with your mouth what my mouth is doing and the right words will come out.” It’s amazing how well this works with the Peace Choir! I always encourage people to listen more than they sing, and to think of what they are doing as “simultaneous imitation.”
There comes a moment about twenty minutes into every rehearsal when I suddenly realize that the voices are sounding balanced, tuned, and sweet. Then I am able to present the rest of the songs quickly until we can sing something perfectly in unison after practicing it only once as call and response. It’s amazing and it never fails. I am not sure how to account for this phenomenon, and I sometimes jokingly attribute it to telepathy. I know it is part of the magic of music.
The members of the Peace Choir rehearse in small groups and never sing all together until a concert. It is exciting for everyone to discover how many of us there are! A full band backs up the Choir: bass, drums, piano, and guitar. Soloists sing some of the parts of the songs. The added sound of the band and soloists make it exciting for Choir members, and the band and soloists are swept away by the support of such a large number of singers. I begin to feel as if I could levitate!
At a performance, I rarely see someone glance at a lyric book. Instead I see singers with faces glowing, singing as if their hearts are on fire, passionate about every word. The music unifies us, creates a powerful vision of a better world, and helps us believe we can make it real. Singing together with like-minded people, we form bonds that can be the basis for networking in other ways. From each other we learn about opportunities to create practical good in a needy world. We see that we are not alone. Our allies are all around us.
I make a deliberate attempt to reach out to a wide variety of people to present a true rainbow of diversity and demonstrate that everyone has a stake in a better world. I encourage people to make memories with family and friends by bringing others to sing with them. No one is too young or too old. Our age range has been from four to eighty-four.
Our community is responding to the Peace Choir by inviting us to sing at more and more events for the purpose of raising consciousness and building a culture of non-violence. We have been invited to sing at the opening ceremony for the Texans for Peace Conference at the University of Incarnate Word on Oct 7, and at the Health, Healing, and Wellness Festival at Unity Church of San Antonio on Oct 14. The Chairperson of the Martin Luther King March Committee has invited us to sing in January for the largest MLK March on the planet. We will be singing at opening and closing ceremonies for A Season for Nonviolence in San Antonio, and at other events during the Season.
At our first concert we had about 70 singers participating. At our second concert, we had about 140! What if we doubled the size of the choir every time we performed? How long would it take until the Choir included the entire population of San Antonio? Don't tell me our streets wouldn't be safer! If we continued to double the size of the choir year after year, how long before we had the entire population of Texas? The US? The continent? The hemisphere? THE WORLD????????????????
See how important singing for peace is?
Here’s how Pete Seeger said it in 1992: “A key to the future is mass participation. ‘If the people lead, eventually the leaders will follow’ says the bumper sticker on our car…Now we see serious problems…But we also have electronic tools of communication…Within the next few decades billions of people will be teaching things to each other, things that we’ve got to learn, if this world is to survive. And much of our learning will be through the arts, overleaping barriers of language, overleaping barriers of hate and misunderstanding…Hardworking people in every land ask why $130 million a minute can be spent every day and every night throughout this world on guns, bombs, poison gas, armaments of all sorts, and yet leaders in every country tell their people that there is no more money for schools nor for health, nor for saving the planet from death...Against such a background, what can songs do? I’ll stand by what I’ve written before. Songs penetrate hard shells…If we bring life to them, they will bring life to us and to our children. And to our children’s children’s children.”
Dr. Ysaye Maria Barnwell tells a story of the Mbuti people of the Congo, who gather their community by walking through the forest singing. Once they are all together, they continue to sing until they hear the melody no one person is singing—until they hear the music that they can only make when all of them raise their voices together. It is only at this point, when they have tuned themselves to each other, heart, mind, and spirit, that they allow themselves to move on to discussion and decision making. Isn’t this a beautiful example for how our leaders could make better decisions? Remember, when we sing and make music many different parts of our brains begin to work together in a coherent way. Studies cited by Eric Jensen in the book Arts With the Brain in Mind demonstrate that “the creativity to embellish potential solutions to a mock social problem was enhanced by the use of music.” Doesn’t it make sense that using more of our brains would result in better solutions?
Many times I have seen musicians who have never met before, do not know each other’s names, and do not necessarily speak the same language sit down with their instruments and create something beautiful together that none of them could have created alone. How do they do this? By listening carefully to each other and being responsible about how they contribute the sound of their instruments to the overall composition. What if instead of sending our politicians to Washington (or to the United Nations) we sent our very best musicians? What if they first worked out harmonies with each other and created an improvised musical composition to which they had all contributed? Somehow I think tackling social/political issues after that would be much easier and more likely to result in peace and justice. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King: “We must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation.”
What they're saying about the Peace Choir: