My grandfather used to say, “Religion is of the will, not the emotions.”
I’ve always found that comforting. Feelings are so transient but my salvation is not dependent on them. I don’t need to “feel” anything to be a good Catholic. I just need to make good choices.
“Religion is of the will. Not the emotions.”
So is singing.
I once got into an argument with a friend at a Catholic Church that practiced heavily contemporary music. They had the whole gamut from the semi-band next to the altar, to the sound board placed in the middle of the congregation. Coming out of Mass, I was frustrated because, even with my Masters in Music, I couldn’t easily read the complex syncopated rhythms in the hymnal. Sometimes, I wasn’t even given the luxury of printed music, but instead, just a projection of some words on the sacristy wall.
“You’re not supposed to read the music,” a friend said. “You’re just supposed to feel it.”
You’re supposed to feel it.
Well… what if you don’t?...Feel it, I mean. Does that mean there’s something wrong with me? Am I spiritually inferior because I don't just "feel it?" I’ve been reading and studying music my whole life and suddenly I was a total ignoramus. Whatever this secret gift the people in this parish had, I had not been given it.
Now as soon as I got in the car, my husband was quick to point out that most of the people in the contemporary church weren’t singing either. Band or no band, pop music and electronics aside, they were still stinking Catholics. Most just pretended the singing wasn't happening, and the few that were singing, predictably adopted that universal Catholic sing-like-you-don’t-mean-it sound and “not so loud that you bother the person next to you” praise and worship. You can just feel the joy. No matter what repertoire we Catholics pick, we still don’t sing out.
I’m not saying all feelings are bad things. Don’t forget, I’m an opera singer. I’m the queen of being emotional. God gave us deeply movable hearts, and a great capacity for expressing them. Emotions are a part of us but they mustn’t be the standard by which we make our choices. And our ability to worship should not be dependent on what we're "feeling" at a given moment. We choose to worship. We don't "summon emotions" to worship. In other words, the emotions are not the crucial element of worship. The will is.
So, for the remainder of this post, understand what I mean when I say “feel” your voice. I don’t mean, raise your hands to the roof or sob like a baby. I mean, what are you willing to happen in your body? What muscles are you using? Where is extraneous and unnecessary tension hiding?
Singing MUST be based in physical sensation and not in sound.
Let me write that again. Singing must be based in what you feel, not what you hear.
The latter should be compared to the dangerous fleeting emotions of the day. Let’s face it, if you’re singing based on what you hear, you’re just “trying” to make it sound whatever you think “good” is. You don’t get to do that. God decides what “good” is. Not you.
Feel every breath coming in low, expanding your gut and your lower ribcage.
Feel every time you begin to sing, a low abdominal muscle engage and actively support a steady stream of air pressure.
Feel resonance anywhere, but aim for the frontal mask and hard palette.
Release all tension in your throat, shoulders, arms, jaw, tongue.
These are all things you can actively WILL to feel.
Now hold on a minute here. Aren’t we supposed to be thinking of God when we’re in Church?
YOU ARE! You are surrendering your desire to “sound” glorious to His Will. And you are enacting this surrender with your full created body and your very life-breath which Glorifies him and even better, wait for it. . . the Temple of the Holy Spirit!
Not everything about our Catholic faith has to be intellectual.
Not everything about our Catholic faith has to be understood.
Many things about our Catholic faith are mysteries. And this singing thing. This is one of those mysteries. It’s a mystery why God says to do it almost two hundred times in Holy Scripture. It’s a mystery how the act of our will in song glorifies His Holy Name. And best of all, it’s a mystery, like sex is a mystery. This physical act of our wills, of our energy, of our very life-sustaining breath, somehow mysteriously comes together with our created bodies to raise a trusting, ego-free song to Our Creator, and thus brings us to a more intimate, personal relationship with Him.
All right. Everybody calm down. I just used the word sex in a Catholic singing lesson. Before everybody gets their feathers ruffled, let’s go back and clarify. I didn’t say singing was like sex. I said singing was a mystery of prayer with the created body, just like sex is a mystery of creation in union with God in the created body. This thing. This physical body. Somehow, it’s part of our relationship with Him. And no where does He testify to this mystery of the created body more than on His Holy Cross and in His Sacred Tabernacle.
These bodies we live in. He made them. He knows how the whole picture works and we don’t. It’s a mystery. So feel the song in your physical body.
But what if I can’t feel it? Isn’t this the same as that contemporary church?
No. This is not a talent. It’s not some magical secret society. There is nothing hidden here. It’s a muscle. If you can do a sit up, you can do this. Even after having a C-section, I could use my abdominals.
What about the resonance? I don’t feel this buzz of which you speak. . .
In thirty years of teaching, I’ve never met one I couldn’t get to feel the buzz eventually. Don’t you see? Some feel the buzz right away. Others need direction. It’s just like Grace. You can feel it, you ARE feeling it, you just aren’t aware. But I can help with that. Stay tuned.
For now, stop listening to your voice.
Start singing based on the act of your will: low breath, abdominal support and fontal resonance.