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Radical Music: 'How can we sing together when we are apart?'

For the last few months PN columnist Penny Stone has been posting 'learn-and-sing-along' song videos on her website, as a way to help people who are social distancing to keep singing whilst ‘non-essential’ activities such as singing groups have been temporarily suspended. In this piece (written back in March) she explains the thinking behind this project.


When we sing together, we resonate and ring. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we can feel the vibrations buzzing between us.

If I sing a high note, I can most likely feel my sound resonating in my head, and at the same time I can feel your low note resonating in my chest, even down to my belly and hips if I’m lucky!

Those of you who have ever sung Georgian music in particular will know how much more collective vibration we feel when we sing close together. Or, if you’ve ever laid your head on a piano or a guitar while playing, you will know that ‘purring’ feeling you can get from being so physically close to an instrument.
Part of our commitment as activists to radically re-imagine the world we live in is challenging ourselves to live differently every day, despite the imperfect reality.

For many of us, a big part of this is how we operate in community with those around us.

When we are challenging the military industrial complex, or large scale climate denial, we are doing it in community with others. When we are singing together as part of this action, we really feel this community connection and the strength it can give us.

Because of the COVID-19 social distancing we are facing just now, many of our usual activities aren’t accessible to us. And it has brought into clear relief for many of us how important the singing element is not just to our visioning of the world, but to our community experiencing of it.

So how can we sing together when we are apart?

There are obviously countless tools for video calls now, which is truly amazing, allowing many of us to carry on with colleagues from a distance (a possibility many climate activists are hoping we can keep hold of and apply more rigorously to the climate emergency once this epidemic has passed).

But the technology doesn’t allow for simultaneous singing – there is always, and will always be, a very slight phase delay in the audio. So this is a useful tool for the social aspect, and the sharing of songs, but not for the singing together element.

If you are lucky enough to be stuck in the house with other people, bingo, make yourself a house choir or a house band!

If you aren’t, then finding something to sing with is better than nothing. Maybe it’s an old guitar you can play three chords on – that will do!

Maybe you have a piano, and whether you can play it or not, just chugging out a couple of notes together and singing with it gives you the shared vibration of harmony.

In Italy, many of you will have seen musicians singing and playing on their balconies, sometimes alone and often in harmony. Many friends have said ‘oh, if only we could do this here’. But we can! We just have to find the right songs. It might be the sad reality that not everyone in your street knows ‘The Internationale’, ‘Solidarity Forever’, or ‘Bella Ciao’, but is now not the perfect time to teach them?!

I’m only half joking – maybe it’s worth starting in the middle ground – depending on your neighbourhood, maybe ‘la-ing’ that bit of Beethoven everyone knows from the end of the Ninth Symphony, singing ‘Bring Me Sunshine’, ‘Singing In The Rain’ or ‘California Dreaming’.

I reckon plenty of streets could manage most of Bohemian Rhapsody between them…. Plenty of friends and colleagues of mine are meeting in smaller groups to sing outside, and another friend of mine is hoping to do some small group ‘garden singing’ to help connect with people who are stuck inside.

Even through a screen, music and singing can help us feel connected to community and keep committed to the things we seek to change.

I have made some singalong videos for people who are feeling stuck at home, teaching the choruses and parts of songs as if you were in the room with me.This, I hope, can help a little.

It’s the radical songs that connect us with our wider community, and when you feel your voice vibrating, know that ours are singing too, just not as closely as usual....

You can find some of these singalong songs in the ‘Projects’ section on my website: www.singlouderthanguns.com

Topics: Culture