Sermon: The Power of Song (Viv Bellos – Shabbat Shira)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 22 March 2015

Thank you  for inviting me to give the sermon today to mark Shabbat shirah, the Shabbat of Song. It is so named because the parasha contains 2 of the ten songs found in the whole Torah.  The first and most famous, Shirat Hayam the song of the sea which the Israelites sang as they crossed the reed sea from slavery to freedom is found in the Torah in Exodus Chapter 15 verses 1 – 18.  2 verses later we  find the second, the song of Miriam, a short couplet reiterating the joy of having escaped slavery.  The traditional Haftarah for this Shabbat is also a song, the Song of Deborah.


Having given the sermon several times before on this particular Shabbat I looked back at some of the subjects I had chosen in the past; cantillation singing form the Torah; the place of music in Reform Judaism; linking the parasha to Tu Bishvat the festival of the trees in the year the two days coincided; and an overall view of what was happening at that time in 2003 in the Jewish music world as a whole.


However in this my 35th year at Alyth and the year in which I have been so greatly honoured by this community, I pondered on what it is in essence that I have really done since I started working here in 1980. I like to think that I have carried out the brief that the great and visionary Rabbi Dow Marmur set me to ‘get Alyth singing’ and today I want to explore the power of song.

Song is supremely important in Jewish tradition. Chanting has always been an element of Jewish worship and singing was considered an important ingredient in temple life. The Levites the tribe of musicians who sang in the Temple were expected to train for five years before entering the  Temple choir. Singing continued to be a respected part of worship into talmudic times when the rabbis stated that the bible should be read in public in a sweet musical tone.


At all our major chagim we sing the psalms of Hallel in celebration and when we mourn someone the El Male Rachamim is sung to soothe the bereaved and to beg God to accompany the departed soul. We sing the seven blessing at a wedding to bless the bride and bridegroom and we chant grace after meals to thank God for the bounty we have received. We sing the blessings over the wine and bread every Shabbat and at all the minor festivals there are a multitude of children’s songs available to help celebrate the day .


Song has always been an active part of both the prayer house and the home.


Throughout Central and Eastern Europe the Ashkenazi Jews developed the language of Yiddish as the tongue spoke in everyday life keeping Hebrew and Aramiac as the language of the prayer. Yiddish song was sung primarily in the home with themes focusing on life cycle events, love and death.  As persecution grew those themes were augmented with songs of work, poverty and protest and ultimately became songs of the ghettos and camps. Song played an important role in the camps most particularly in Terezin, the camp which housed so many of the world’s great talents in music art and drama. There were choirs and orchestras within the camp encouraged by the Nazi’s to use as propaganda. The children’s opera Brundibar by Hans Krasa, which the Alyth Children’s Theatre staged here in 2011, was performed over 50 times in Terezin and used in a film made by the Red Cross which the Nazi’s used to persuade the world that they were humanitarian in their treatment of Jews. So many stories abound from survivors of that time of how song kept peoples spirits up and created a brief respite in their unmitigated despair.


Folk song was not only important in the Ashkenazi world, The Sephardim had their own huge and beautiful repertoire of song, sung in the ancient Castilian language of Ladino. Both Yiddish and Ladino song has had a resurgence of late with many vocal and instrumental groups specialising in these genres. Only last Tuesday Alyth’s Holocaust Memorial Day focused on the recent revival of Yiddish song. It was a beautifully crafted evening of choirs, solos, poetry and pictures devised by Cantor Cheryl and greatly appreciated by all who attended.


But singing is more than words and music. Singing is a physical activity that has benefits beyond the beauty of the words and the music. From a medical standpoint singing is often used as therapy. The Nordoff Robbins organisation begun in the 1950s has a trained network of music therapists working with people of all ages and with a range of disabilities. They deliver music therapy sessions, which always include singing, in care homes, day centres, hospitals, schools and their own centres. They state that singing can improve physical health and ability; address emotional and behavioural difficulties; develop communication and social skills and increase creativity, self-esteem and confidence.


It is especially beneficial for depression and memory and the Alzheimers Association has in the past few years set up ‘Singing for the Brain’ sessions led by trained musicians working with people with dementia. Alyth hosts a group that meets here every Wednesday and it’s very heart – warming to see sufferers respond so well to these sessions.


As many of you know my mother suffered from Alzheimers in the last 7 years of her life and yet the ability to sing and hold the alto line never left her although she could not remember at the bottom of the page that she needed to turn to the next one. I would like to publicly thank again all those in the choir who would patiently sit and turn her pages to enable her to stay in the choir for as long as possible.


Singing in a choir is a therapy in itself. The intake of breath required to create the sung note oxygenates the blood thus enhancing your mental capacities and the necessary stance encouraging relaxed shoulders and straight back leads to a better posture. Choristers will often be heard to comment on leaving a rehearsal how much more energised they feel at the end of a rehearsal having often arrived feeling tired and stressed.


Choirs bring people together from differing backgrounds and ethnicities, and give them the experience of working together for a shared goal. It gives them a sense of pride in what they are doing, especially when performing in concerts and encourages team spirit. It breaks down barriers between people of different backgrounds both within the choir and with their audiences. Gareth Malone has demonstrated this over the last few years with his very entertaining series on television,’ The Choir’. Cleverly constructed and edited this series shows more clearly the benefits within organisations of using singing to bond otherwise disparate groups.


I have recently become very interested in the possibility of using choral singing to bridge the religious divide between different faiths. In the past I have run interfaith music days which have been a fascinating insight into the music of other faiths but I actually find it surprising that I have never realised that the choir format could be so much more powerful to foster good relations between religions.


The Civilisations choir of Antakya situated in the Anatolian peninsula of Turkey has done just that. Here in a region beset by racial and religious divides where 30 kilometres away war and sectarian massacres are occurring on a daily basis, all three Abrahamic faiths have lived in total harmony since the Ottoman era. Founded in Hatay, known as “the city of tolerance,” this choir is composed of 120 people. Its members include Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Armenian, Kurdish and Turkish citizens. Since its inception in 2007 the choir has made a name for itself with songs in 6 different languages and have given concerts both in Turkey and all over the world. As a result of their continuous efforts to tell a story of peace, tolerance and solidarity rooted in diversity, The Civilizations Choir of Antakya was nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. This must be the living proof of the power of song.


I suppose I have spent much of my life believing in this power. The Alyth Youth Singers has for me demonstrated most clearly the power singing has to develop self-esteem and confidence in the young. It has been a privilege to watch so many youngsters join the choir as timid and unsure 13 year olds and see how the experience of being in a group and singing in front of so many differing audiences creates an assurance and joy of performance that permeates through their personality. Since 2004 a yearly trip abroad has bonded the choir into a family unit which makes the choir a safe and happy environment for the young people to flourish.


More recently the Singing for Pleasure group which is now well over 20 strong has morphed into the Alyth Community Choir and shows that a group of people enjoying themselves by singing together can also bring joy and a sense of well-being to groups of elderly and disabled people. This singing group was described the other day as a youth group for the over 60s and it can certainly seems like one when trying to keep order! There’s a great deal of chat and laughter but everyone certainly has a good time most especially their audiences.


But perhaps the most powerful sessions I do at Alyth are the Unlock Your Voice workshops. Using my 40 years’ experience as a singing teacher I have devised ways to help people to find a voice where for many years they have felt powerless. So often it is because as a young child they were asked by a teacher to mime in choir or family members had told them they couldn’t sing. These comments go deep and close up the voice box confirming to the individual that they really can’t sing.  I accept I can’t help everyone to sing. Some people are tone deaf (my father was and my sister still is) but the number is nowhere near as many as is thought.  Nearly everyone can sing if they have the confidence and tools to use their larynx properly. It is such a rewarding session to run, often there are tears as people find they can actually sing a song in tune and at the session I ran last December 3 of that group after a lifetime of saying they couldn’t sing have realised they can and are joining the Singing for Pleasure group. That is the power of song.


As I imagine this is the last time I will deliver a sermon as the Director of Music here at Alyth I cannot end without some thanks. To all my chairmen and women over the last 35 years, to all my colleagues on the staff team and there have been so many of them, to all the members of all my choirs who have joined me, supported me, and inspired me on this wonderful journey and of course to my children and my tenor.


I know that with Cantor Cheryl at the helm here at Alyth, singing is in safe hands and I look forward to many more years as a congregant enjoying the power of song