It is some time since I last watched the Last Night of the Proms on television. If you are a school leader, the concert takes place at exactly the wrong time of the year, as it is at the beginning of September, when every minute is a precious resource for launching the new academic year, setting expectations and articulating the direction of travel for improvement. I happened upon the programme, some time after its broadcast because a friend had encouraged me to take a look. The scenes and sounds of people singing along to Elgar and Jerusalem are not really to my taste, but I was struck once again by the tremendous sense of joyful exuberance in the shared experience of the audience, and in particular by their uninhibited singing. Music truly does have an extraordinary power to bring people together. Shakespeare had it right when he put into the mouth of Benedick in Much Ado the line, ‘Is it not strange that sheep’s guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies’. But it is singing together in particular that has a special power.
I suspect that this is in part at least a physiological effect, but it is profound nonetheless. When a crowd of people feel the same thrum of vibration in their ears, few can resist some movement to that rhythm. When they open their mouths and begin to sing, so inevitably, their breathing begins to align to the meter of the lyric. If they sing for any length of time, this coordinated breathing surely brings their hearts to a similar beat, particularly if they are exerting themselves. Imagine then a hall of 270 eleven year olds, standing alongside their fifteen or so teachers and some sixth formers too, as they belt out their newly learned school hymn, ‘Ever Holding Fast’. It really did make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and send a shiver down my spine. The Last Night of the Proms paled in comparison to this.
Singing together as a school is a powerful thing to do. It brings you together and confirms your corporate identity. Sometimes it can be hard to galvanise young people to join in, particularly self-conscious teenagers, but our end of year 11 celebration service this year was characterised by some fantastic singing. If you don’t give up and persistently encourage them, they lose the inhibition and re-discover some of that year 7 joy.
Saint Augustine of Hippo was apparently of the opinion that singing was ‘praying twice’. He had a point. Singing makes demands upon us as we join worship. It requires us to use our bodies as well as our minds in bringing praise and entreaty to God. That’s surely why it has featured so consistently in Christian worship through time. It is an expression of the community of the Church, calling us out of where and who we are. It calls us to lift up our eyes, lift up our souls away from our concerns and to, instead, seek the wisdom of God and to glimpse a foretaste of heaven. It is certainly in that tradition that we regularly sing as part of our daily assemblies and particularly in Eucharistic worship at Bennett. I cannot help but think in the Eucharistic Prayer that we are joining the whole company of heaven in their eternal song as we raise our voices with the words ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts, Heaven and earth are full of your glory, Hosannah in the Highest!’.
With the start that they have made, I cannot wait to hear our new year 7 at our Founders’ Day late in October.