Trance: On shared singing and other diversions

Trance: On shared singing and other diversions December 20, 2022


{Photo by Seraphin Nayituriki for Scopio}

I snatch some fabric from the scrap heap, holding it up to the improv quilt square taking shape—‘80s playlist crooning in the background, or old Lionel, the window cracked so I can hear crickets or frogs or mourning doves, depending on the season. As I quilt, I sing to my cat, who surely thinks this tidbit was written for her: “My love, just thinking about you baby blows my mind.” In pandemic, with group-singing silenced, this evening ritual gained currency.

Trance, I’ve come to call it—though for me, it’s a new word. Trance: to enter a state of profound abstraction or absorption. According to some anthropologists, it’s what we humans do—our distinguishing feature, the need for trance. Perhaps our highly discursive brains necessitate it; we need cognitive rest the same as we need all kinds of rest. The word “trance” has problematic associations, surely, conjuring images of self-appointed shamans or altered states of consciousness and glossolalia. But the fact is, we trance-out each day. We all do.

Throughout human history, group-singing and chant were often our most prominent forms of formal trance. Indigenous people chanted and sang together; and until recent times, most cultures sang together at least weekly in spiritual services like church. At the tiny Episcopal church where I serve as ordained deacon, we resumed singing—Fall 2021, all in attendance promisingly vaxed. And the singing together was wonderful…and rough. Though our parish doesn’t have a song leader, we have a gifted young musician, self-taught on organ and guitar; and that first Sunday, he chose familiar hymns as I defaulted to song leader. Morning Has Broken. Amazing Grace. But we seemed to skip measures at the ends of choruses, and I struggled to catch up. Every first measure, clipped. Singing together purportedly has beneficial physiological effects, from stimulating the immune system to boosting relaxation to stimulating the bonding hormone oxytocin. But this time, I wonder.

With attendance at religious services falling, collective singing has become more and more rare.

How will we sing together?

Based on the benefits, group singing is a trance we could use. Still, I understand the baggage around church singing. I often feel manipulated by it; not to mention the theology of a big-God-in-the-sky who wants nothing more than to be praised. On the other hand, I feel no less manipulated by group singing at, say, a folk concert. Yet I find this group-singing moving. Why the different reactions? The problematic theology, I suppose.

For Lent 2020, I chose to delve into music. I’ve long resisted the idea that Lent requires subtraction or withholding, and instead see the ritual as delving deep into the roots of a thing—like a symbol of winter nourishment preceding spring’s dramatic resurrection, the profusion of rebirth. In Lent, I look for ways to go deeper, and that year it was music. I made new playlists. I filled more space with deep music-listening and less talk. I let music have its way with me, and ever since, I relate to music differently. Yet despite these gains, something was lost in not regularly sharing music with others.

Thus, I looked for trance and communal singing elsewhere, such as quilting alongside Sybil-cat. And I hear snippets of song in leaf wind and the sway of cloud formations, or in the hush of matted grass I walk over each morning rounding our hayfield, the purring of a cat. I am grateful to trance-out as I do. Of course, there are ample ways to trance-out with smartphones—clearly not all beneficial.

So I grab another scrap of fabric. I add it to the quilt square, singing a bit of chorus as I do. Mary Chapin Carpenter: Now that it’s twilight, twilight…. Sybil stretches her arms in approval and purrs along.

Wren, winner of a 2022 Independent Publishers Award Bronze Medal

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