By: Emma Johnston
I love to sing. Now please don’t mistake this sentiment to mean that I am a good or even reasonably capable singer – just ask the poor woman who stands beside me in church and works tirelessly to sing just a little louder than I do as she tries to hide my ineptitude.
I have very little sense of rhythm, no range or consistent pitch and I make up words if I don’t know the real ones. I have never entertained a career in singing.
Yet, despite the serious lack of ability, my love for the pastime has never wavered or diminished. I sing to my children at bedtime every night, I sing when I’m happy, and in the shower and in the car. I belt out my own custom melodies when I can’t find the can opener and when I do art projects and when I want to make my family laugh.
This is not a new part of who I am. In fact, when my husband first started hanging around, I believe my constant desire to sing songs from old movies, or break into a meaningful rendition of some British folk song may have been mildly surprising. Now, almost 20 years later, I even hear him bust into song every once and a while.
I’ve been singing all my life. I would never go more than a couple hours without hearing my mother sing and my paternal grandmother was no different. Music (though not skill) is in our blood!
Music can bring people together. Whether that’s through singing together on a Sunday morning, or belting out a song at a concert, or dancing together at a wedding or weeping together at a funeral. I have seen music bring people together consistently throughout my life.
One of these occasions manifested itself when I was 13 years old. My Grandmother who was born in India had decided to take her oldest granddaughter (me!) back to her home country for a month. For four weeks we were travelling the country by train, rickshaw and elephant to go and explore the places where she grew up. It was the experience of a lifetime as I happily bade goodbye to my parents and travelled around the world to meet my grandparents and start my adventures!
On one leg of this journey we had to spend 3 days travelling by train. As riveting as this journey may sound, 3 days was a long time and in order to pass the hours, what did my grandmother and I do? We sang!
We sang every song we knew the words to. We sang pop songs and folk songs and Scottish love songs – if it was a song, we probably sang it.
One afternoon we began to sing a series of songs that have been put to the tunes of hymns. However, the words to these songs — they were far from religious. One such song, a terrible song about a man jumping from a plane and splattering like jam on the pavement was in our repertoire. This gory and insensitive song had been put to the tune “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” a hymn with much nicer and more compassionate lyrics.
As we were sang the gruesome details of this man’s demise a knock came on our carriage door. A young man, likely in his late 20’s timidly stood at the edge of our cabin. His English was sparse, but based on his dress and the books he held in his hand, I could only assume he had dedicated himself to his faith and was likely part of a local Monastery. Through a combination of his broken English and my Grandmother’s broken Hindi, it became clear that he had misinterpreted the song we were singing. He had heard the tune and knew it as an English hymn, finding a fellow hymn singer on the train he had come to join in the music. Without missing a beat my grandmother assured him we WERE singing hymns and brought him into our cabin. For the next hour we sang hymns, some in English, some in Hindi. Pretty soon a father and his daughter (Priti was her name) joined us. They sang with us too. Then, one by one, people from other cabins along the way stopped by, our little spot on the train filled with people, each and every one of them singing.
For over an hour we sang with perfect strangers. We laughed over the difficulties in interpretations, we learned new songs, we sometimes harmonized and we sometimes fell terribly off key. Yet this time of singing brought almost half a train of people, Indian and English, from every walk of life together.
None of us worried about how good we sounded or whether the words were right or what language it was in. None of us cared about whether we knew the person we were sitting beside or what their history was. All of that seemed to melt away with the shared experience of music.
I loved that experience.
I love every time I gather with people and we lift our voices together. From the Passenger concert in Toronto where thousands of people sang in unison as an encore to the artist, to the enormous stadium events where we honor our greatest musicians, to the times in the car when my kids and I sing funny songs about our day. Music can connect people. Bring people together. Allow barriers to break down and connections to be made.
There is something magical about standing beside someone and singing with them. For those standing beside me, it’s a true test of your resilience, but on the whole, it is a chance to connect. So, I encourage you, from the blessed musician to those who sound like wounded cats – find a place to lift your voice and see if it doesn’t just stir some feelings you may have forgotten existed.