Is music a religion?

Posted on August 1, 2013

Music and Atheism. Don’t think they have anything in common? I beg to differ.

I remember being about eight years old, sitting crossed legged on the school hall floor. Inevitably I began to daydream into and beyond it’s shiny polished veneer, when a snap of fingers and an uncompromising point, directed me to focus on the sermon of the day. The idea behind snapping me out my blissfully happy and gormless state was to make sure that I couldn’t escape having drummed into me, through the day to day, ritual process of osmosis, the lessons on how I should grow up to be a good Christian fellow one day.


As a young compliant boy I sat up straight, looked forward with fake interest and thus began to learn how to win the approval of authority figures by smiling and nodding at appropriate moments. Make of my education what you will. I remember that feeling though because it has followed me throughout my journey as a singer as well. Music, as we all know is one of those primitive aspects of our basic underlying humanity. And yet, as a singer, I am constantly aware of a pressure to conform to one school of thought concerning vocal technique. The most obvious tug of war between these vocal schools of thought, exists between the classical and musical theatre worlds. Each believes their technique to be ‘correct’ and all other approaches wrong. This is fine and to some extent valid most of the time. However, not to be a show off, but I have sung both styles, and I can tell you that for both, I used the same body, arms, legs, vocal chords and the same pair of lungs. In other words I have one instrument, and that instrument is my mind and body. How can you realistically argue that there one ‘correct’ way to sing a song?


This same question arises in the world of religion, when discerning which Holy book to follow. Modern day Jerusalem is not a testament to people living out a ‘live a let live’ philosophy towards their fellow man. I was taught the validity of the Christian religious book as a child, but this was very definitely at the expense of all others, and also I might add at the expense of any atheistic or even humanist points of view. As a human being, am I richer or poorer for having had this narrow polemic viewpoint anchored into my psychology from a young age? I tell you what, that’s a big topic, we can discuss that at a later date. What I do believe as a singer, is that just like athletes who reach the Olympics, talent only gets you so far. Hard work and the right psychology gets you the rest of the way there. I teach singing as part of my wider musical life, and the worst thing I think I could do to any budding, young singer, is place un-due restrictions on his or her ability to express his or herself, through the medium of their own human voice.


So, you see, there is arguably a real correlation between music and religion. I didn’t simply ‘sex up this dossier’ with a provocative title after all. I am aware however, that me drifting off in a childhood school assembly is a particularly fatuous example to use to prove my point. So let me indulge my passion for waffling, just a moment longer and expand my argument slight more scientifically.


I don’t very often (ok, never) quote anyone that Hitler happened to admire, and certainly not for his anti-Semitic ideology. Wagner, is however a formidable test of one’s principals. I like Jewish people. I think they should be able to live happily like everyone else. I also admire Wagner’s musical ideology. This, I hereby will qualify for the sake of argument, is only with the tacit understanding that as a person I am decidedly on the other side of the fence to Wagner’s personal and political ideologies. What Wagner did believe in, in relation to performance was the idea of ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ or a ‘total work of art”. In his day this meant Opera on the stage. As Opera consists of dialogue and music, the idea of Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk had to consist of the best dialogue human beings could muster, and not surprisingly, also the best music possible. Today, it would still be hard to argue against the coming together of the two principle examples Wagner chose as the template for this art form, namely Shakespeare and Beethoven respectively. No doubt today we could include the acting as well, (possibly Marlon Brando, or any other actor equally emerged from the pool of Stanislavski), have it made into a film directed by Spielburg and I think we would be nearly there in today’s language…with a theme tune by Adele of course…and in 3D. The best and worst of anything is of course personal, subjective and therefore open to debate. The ideology of a ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ though, even if just in the very personal terms of me trying to be the best performer I can possibly be, remains an important motivating factor for me.


As a singer I work hard to promote a conscious lack of limits on my voice. The human voice is entirely affected by the psychology of the person it belongs to. A newborn baby, for example, knows no such vocal limitations as it communicates freely with a wail or a cry what it is feeling. A singer must aim to regain that psychological freedom in order to have the full range of powers of his or her body, or ‘instrument’. This is hard but not impossible. I, like many other people, change the volume I speak at depending on the social circumstances I find myself in and the relative proximity to other people. The ‘perfect’ singer shouldn’t do this. In theory at least, he should practice expressing his voice freely and openly at all times. However, practically, if this were the case, the ‘perfect’ singer would have no friends. So I do inevitably compromise this artistic principle in order to socialize in polite society. Therein lies a serious point though; as a singer, how often you compromise your voice, out in the real world, will affect your musical vocals and psychology over time.


After the initial stage in human development of being an innocent newborn baby, every single iota of everything we are exposed to potentially affects this psychology and tempers our voice accordingly. I grew up in a small city in England, (with very British sensibilities of good manners and politeness being upheld around me). Often throughout my childhood I lived above a shop and I had to be quiet when customers were downstairs during the day. The main city centre public street was immediately outside my home. I also had a particularly controlling fatherly force ruling the household, which made making oneself ‘invisible’ within that context a particularly strong and positive survival mechanism.


The forces on me socially and environmentally to be quiet growing up, were very real and very strong. Now, had I been brought up on a ranch in Texas, in America (with some good ol’ ‘positive attitude’ American sensibilities), and the outdoor space to fully express myself, there is no doubt my musical voice would differ from what it is today. One of the most important variables in creating any negative or positive environment for a person to flourish is the presence, or lack there of, boundaries.


Rules; they say are made to be broken. Ideally though you have to know the rules first in order to know which ones to break. Schools of vocal technique have rules and boundaries. But vocally, these boundaries can be limiting as much as they can provide a positive framework to develop the free human voice into a disciplined, working instrument. What I believe is potentially naive for a vocalist, is to feel that I have to belong to any one such arbitrary, stringent set of defined rules. However, I am not advocating never learning any technique. Quite the contrary, I am advocating learning all of the techniques, and then cherry picking using the best of each.


If you think of vocal schools of thought as you would different religions, a polemicist is better served by being well read on all of the subject matter, than relying solely on his instinct and hearsay to disagree with an argument. Similarly, a vocalist is better served to argue the merits his chosen style, if he is equally well versed in all of the other styles as well. In summary; does arguing over which ‘vocal style’ is correct, at the expense of all others make you richer or poorer as a vocalist? In my opinion, belonging strictly to only one set of vocal rules dictating only one certain style of technique of singing makes the vocalist all the poorer. An artist’s painting is better served by having a large expansive pallet of colours to draw from and a vocalist is similarly improved by having a large expansive emotional pallet from which to draw. In any case, just as religious communities cannot decide which religion is the best one, so too it is a futile hobby to argue which vocal technique genre is the most valid form of musical expression.


The best way to really see the absurdity of placing one set of rules or restrictions on the human voice (the most expressive musical instrument in the world) is to view the collective, differing schools of vocal technique, as an atheist views all religions. While the three main Abrahamic religions (sharing the same God) argue the merits of their own differing interpretations and teachings of this same God, an atheist is free to fully embrace the wonder and majesty of the natural world without the constraints of a strict stringent set of beliefs that they must adhere to. An Atheist is, by default, unrestricted by all the conventions, all the rules and cultures of all the various religions. The freedom open to an Atheist but denied to the faithful, is the freedom of logic over superstition, and science over faith. The psychological freedom open to a vocalist who doesn’t subscribe to one set of ‘teachings’ is equally liberating and potentially powerful in its ability to draw on the fullest potential for expression and communication that the human voice is capable of. I find this perspective hugely exciting as a singer, who’s job it is, to communicate emotion to other humans. As a vocalist, I am a devout musical atheist.


This isn’t without its problems. Just like anyone with a personal viewpoint, not everyone will agree. Religious Atheists often have to defend themselves against criticism from religious believers, and vice versa. As a vocalist who is concerned, while on stage, only with singing a song with the ultimate expression of emotion possible, it can be difficult to live up to this musical philosophy at all times.


For me, my performance of any song is dictated by what the words and music need, not how   one school of thought says I should approach the song. This musical integrity is obviously difficult to uphold in a world of differing opinion and taste. To an outsider, difference between conflicting schools of vocal technique may seem at best trivial and at worst dull. However, I would simply offer you the following example. Unlike playing the piano, where the notes are explicitly laid out in convenient, separate and tangible black and white keys, where you either play the right note at the right time or the wrong note at the wrong time, a singer doesn’t have that luxury. The singer must be disciplined and strict over his understanding of his own body (instrument) in order to access it’s potential. There are no black and white keys to press for a vocalist. Within this realm of attempting mastery over one’s voice and psychology, is were the actual craft of singing begins for me. The challenge is keep improving, a getting closer to that ever elusive perfect vocal performance. Athletes, body-builders, painters, chefs, stand up comedians…you name it, to perfect your chosen craft, we all draw on the same relish for that challenge. Yes, it would be much easier if after a bad performance, I could grab a detractor by the scruff of the neck and use a variation of Eric Morcambe’s immortal line; “I wasn’t singing the wrong notes. I was singing all the right notes, just not necessarily, in the right order”. However, until then, the challenge is what drives me and the mind of a vocalist will remain complex and disciplined, as well as being psychologically liberated from harmful constraints. Is music a religion? I think it is many different religions, but as a vocalist I am wise not subscribe devoutly to any one.