July 2017 Discussion of the Month

For the next several months, this feature of the website will reprint the collection of short articles that first appeared 10 years ago in Ecclectica. The collection was edited by Wayne Bowman, and published online by Brandon University; this particular issue explored the topic, “The Future of Music Study in Canada.” Contributing authors to this collection represent a diverse range of music scholarship and interests. The MayDay Group obtained permission to reprint these articles from Ecclectica and the various authors for the purpose of discussing the ways music in higher ed has changed since these articles were written ten years ago. The original publication may be viewed at http://ecclectica.brandonu.ca/issues/2006/2/Read.ecc.asp This month’s article from the above collection is by Professor Emeritus Doreen Rao and is the 16th installment from Ecclectica to be featured on the MayDay Group website: Discussion of the Month.

Our hope is that as you read, you will think about what has changed in the past ten years, what may not have changed at all or very much, and where there are signs of shifts in both thinking and practice. While the Ecclectica issue dealt primarily with music in higher education in Canada, the issues, we believe are common to higher music studies in other parts of the world, and this reprint seems timely given the 2014 report from the College Music Society calling for sweeping changes in the approach to undergraduate education in music. Please take a moment after you read to share your thoughts, so that we may generate the kinds of discussions that will lead to the kinds of changes the original Ecclectica authors call for.

Singing: Implications for Music Education in the 21st Century

Doreen Rao, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto

Understanding the nature and value of singing for music education requires a language suitable for the social and cultural conditions of the world today. Historically, singing and vocal performance in music education have been linked with values of uniformity rather than diversity, exclusivity rather than inclusion, and perfection over reflection—contrasting values of human experience shaped by history and culture.

This short essay examines singing and vocal performance as the education of personal intelligence, ethical discernment, and moral responsibility. In contrast with the values of uniformity, exclusivity and perfection, I look at singing in music education as a human practice inspired by diversity, as a healing practice rooted in ancient history, and as a mindfulness practice in time for a troubled 21st century.

I suggest that singing as a form of personal intelligence, ethical discernment, and moral responsibility inspires understanding, a mindfulness value central to the mission of music education and imperative for sustainability in the world today. I propose that the nature and value of singing and vocal performance in music education today extends beyond the traditional goals of artistry and education to include the social and political imperatives of healing and peacemaking in the 21st century.

I hope that these not-so-scholarly musings offer readers an opportunity to ponder the imperatives of vocal performance in relation to peace education; to contemplate the broader meanings of singing as a form of awareness; and to consider the psycho-spiritual possibilities of singing and voice education in music education today.

Cross-Cultural Musings

In his writings on Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Merton tells us that neither the ancient wisdoms nor the modern sciences are complete in themselves. They do not stand alone: They call for one another. From modern singing practices inherited from 19th century euro classical traditions, I call on the ancient wisdoms of Canada’s indigenous People of the Pacific Northwest. Found on a rattle fragment, this vision song was sung to a woman when she was sick. She then used it to heal others.

In your throat is a living song
A living spirit song
Her name is Long-Life Maker

Yes I’m here to heal
With the healing ways
Of the Magic-of-the-Ground
The Magic-of-the-Earth

So go on poor friend
And sing with the healing spirit
With the Magic-of-the-Gound
The Magic-of-the-Earth

And you will spring to life
Through the power of the words
Through the Magic-of-the-Ground
The Magic-of-the-Earth

Amongst indigenous cultures I have known, including the Sami of Scandinavia, the Aborigines of Australia, and the First Nations of the Americas, singing is used therapeutically as a form of medicine and healing to remedy emotional and physical illness. Holy men and women, sound healers and indigenous leaders throughout the world practice singing to affect human consciousness and improve health. For indigenous healers or shamans, the concept of tonal aesthetics does not exist. Sustaining life is what counts.

Cross-cultural descriptions of singing from a variety of different traditions provide us with a rich palette of contrasting perspectives. From these diverse human traditions and practices we can examine singing and vocal performance for music education as these relate to the experiences of everyday life and good health.

What is the value of vocal performance in the world today? Is the value of singing aesthetic experience, social identity, physical health, psychological well being, or spiritual enlightenment? Is singing a demonstration of artistry or musicianship, the formation of consciousness, or a manifestation of the soul? As performers, teachers, and health care professionals continue to investigate the power of singing in relation to the wholeness of the body, mind, and spirit, these questions can guide us toward a future of alternative theories and practices associated with singing and voice education in the 21st century.


My interest in the psycho-spiritual dimensions of singing started at Northwestern University. As part of my doctoral research I examined the nature and value of musical performance crafting a language that I could attach to years of intuitive practice. This work found its way into my choral textbook We Will Sing! (1993) and continues to distinguish the Choral Music Experience performance approach to music teaching and learning from the concept-based, elements-of-music methods traditionally used in general music education.

As a professional singer, conductor and music teacher, I believed that the value of musical experience was embodied in what the Greeks called techne, or musical “making and doing with skill and understanding.” I also believed that singing in choirs should be more broadly understood in mainstream music education as a musically and educationally dynamic, inclusive and intelligent form of musical knowing and doing.

My 1988 research demonstrated how the physical, spiritual, creative, and cognitive aspects of singing serve as a multidimensional, non-verbal form of procedural knowledge, or “thinking-in-action.” In 1996, I began to search for a new way of understanding singing and voice education, a way that reflected my social and spiritual values beyond thinking. I left mainstream music education in order to explore indigenous culture, feminist theories, and the contemplative arts.

During a six year period of research and writing, I studied and practiced my “beginner’s mind.” In the desert of the Southwestern United States, in the footsteps of the Buddha and on the Ganges River in India, and finally to the Himalayas of Bhutan, I observed the “big picture” and studied the many ways singing is used cross-culturally as medicine, as meditation, as relationship, as community, as war, as ecology, and as art.

This enriching work culminated in my textbook Circle of Sound Voice Education: Circle of Sound, which introduces a contemplative approach to singing through a blending of Eastern breathing meditation and martial art movement forms with Western bel canto vocalization. The Circle of Sound contemplative approach to singing suggests what Wayne Bowman called “bold alternatives to traditional pedagogical practices, alternatives that treat music as a natural human fact, an essential way of being human, and a point of access to a dimension of human experience that is both unique and profoundly important to our individual and collective lives.”

There is no better description of singing as human experience than the one remembered in 1921 by Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen who transcribed the words of Orpingalik, a leader of the Netsilik, the People of the Seal. As Rasmussen explains, “He was always singing when he had nothing else to do, and he called his songs ‘comrades in solitude,’ or he would say that his songs were his breath, so necessary were they to him, to such an extent were they part and parcel of himself.” As Rasmussen accounts, from the well of his being Orpingalik could draw up a song to meet every need, to lighten every burden. The great Inuit leader said, “How many songs I have I cannot tell you. I keep no count of such things. There are so many occasions in one’s life when a joy or a sorrow is felt in such a way that the desire comes to sing; and so I only know that I have many songs. All my being is a song, and I sing as I draw breath.”

Contemporary Portraits of Singing

Contemporary voice research proposes that singing is first an art and secondarily a science. Unfortunately, the portrait that emerges from the last twenty-five years of research is one of an unconnected body of work favoring the biological and acoustical functions of the vocal mechanism over the psycho-spiritual dimensions of singing. Few studies in physiology, in acoustics, in function, or even in psychology consider the voice holistically, as a multidimensional phenomenon embodying its biological, emotional and spiritual nature.

While early definitions of voice suggest both an “inner voice” (the voice of God or spirit) and an “outer voice” (the voice of reason), vocal performance all too frequently focuses on the manipulation of the vocal apparatus in the production, control and coordination of tone without much consideration for the psycho-spiritual, therapeutic, and social benefits found in cross-cultural perspectives uncovered in music/medicine, psychology, or anthropology.

Historically, the separation of the biological dimensions of singing from the psycho-spiritual dimensions of singing from the time of Decartes (who obviously never sang in a choir!) contrasts significantly with Aristotle’s classical view of singing in which the soul and the body constitute a single substance. Aristotle’s thinking intuitively connects the organic, biological dimension of voice to its psycho-spiritual dimensions.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest the healing powers of singing and vocal performance. Briefly, musician-neuroscientist Manfred Clynes, a leader in the field of emotional responses to music, suggests that singing is a key to the promotion of health and well-being. The Mind and Life Institute in Boulder, Colorado is working with His Holiness the Dalai Lama to investigate the impact of meditation and chant on the thoughts and emotions of artists and educators. University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has measured these effects on a wide range of subjects.

Scholarship in the sciences, the contemplative, and the performing arts suggests that breathing and singing reduce anxiety, improves immune systems, and increases activity in the area of the brain associated with positive emotions like joy, enthusiasm, and good will. Today’s medical and musical research in cross-cultural sound healing offers fresh perspectives that logically and holistically embrace the mind-body-spirit nature of singing experience.

Singing as Knowing, Doing, and Being (Theoria, Praxis, Phronesis)

How do singers and vocal performance teachers get from the theoretical constructs of knowing about the voice (the physiological, acoustical and functional aspects of singing) to contemporary praxial accounts of vocal performance as musical making and doing (as alternative ways ofknowing or “thinking-in-action”), and further still, to emerging revelations of phronesis—in my words, singing as social conscience, moral responsibility, and ethical discernment?

The concept of phronesis or ethical discernment suggests a moral course of action that is ‘right’ and ‘just’ in a given situation. It is a matter of doing the right thing, at the right time, with the right intent. It is a matter of character and as Aristotle observed, this approach is “not for every person, nor is it easy.”

Music education in the 21st century must necessarily consider the kind of personal attention, emotional support, and care-giving that motivates our students’ ethical discernment—their ability to embrace moral courses of action. It is more important than ever that vocal performance teachers consider singing as a matter of character and service in close relationship with skill and understanding. As David Best argues, education in the arts has an utterly inescapable moral dimension.

Personal Intelligence, Ethical Discernment and Moral Responsibility

What have the development of personal intelligence, ethical discernment, and moral responsibility to do with singing and vocal performance in music education? In my view, just about everything. Understood as a form of awareness, singing is a life-skill closely related to personal intelligence. As a singer follows the breath in and out, an awareness of herself and others continually deepens.

Understood as a form of mindfulness, singing encourages the skillful means of being fully present in the here and the now. Mindfulness and ethical discernment are interdependent skills. In the context of vocal performance, students learn to “bear witness” to themselves and to others.

Singing encourages the skills of deep listening as a form of moral responsibility. The ability to listen to others, to the ensemble, to hear their own parts in relation to others and to make adjustments in pitch, tone quality, or dynamic levels requires deep listening ability. The ability to listen is closely related to being free of fear and anxiety, being at ease, and being in calm and concentration. Learning to listen to the self is the first step in learning to listen to others.

Singing is the practice of well-being. In a world where violence and injustice surrounds us, it is not enough for our students to simply produce beautiful singing for its own sake. Too often our work takes place in the exclusive confines of our rehearsal rooms and concert halls that leave out most of the world. Singing beautiful tones for their own sake is not enough to educate our students’ social consciousness or sense of moral responsibility in the world today. Well-being comes from the quality of our connection with others – from the sense of shared humanness that comes from singing for the benefit of all beings.

In Conclusion

Vocal performance in music education understood as the inclusive education of personal intelligence, ethical discernment, and moral responsibility should be encouraged through the systematic development of awareness, mindfulness, and deep listening in studios, classrooms and rehearsals. A young singer who recognizes herself as an important part of the choir, who respects the multiple differences and the rights of her fellow students, and who demonstrates her service through the joy and pleasure of performance counts in every way as an artist and peacemaker.

In a world of borders and boundaries, terrorism and injustice, music education could consider the social and psycho-spiritual potential of singing and vocal performance as a cross-cultural, transforming, and inclusive musical practice—a human practice inspired by diversity, a healing practicerooted in ancient history and a mindfulness practice for living in the 21st century.

We can re-dream this world and make the dream real. All roads lead to death, but some roads lead to things, which can never be finished. Wonderful things.
—Ben Okri, The Famished Road

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