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Much has been written in previous Baha’i Blog posts about singing, but mostly in connection with soloists, often combined with instruments. Less has been said here about group singing, which is an important branch of vocal music. Baha’is have been encouraged by the Central Figures, the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice to incorporate music and singing into all aspects of Baha’i community life:
We, verily, have made music as a ladder for your souls, a means whereby they may be lifted up unto the realm on high…Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, paragraph 51
…in this new age the Manifest Light hath, in His holy Tablets, specifically proclaimed that music, sung or played, is spiritual food for soul and heart.Abdu’l-Bahá , Selections From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p 112
…play and sing out the holy words of God with wondrous tones in the gatherings of the friends, that the listener may be freed from chains of care and sorrow, and his soul may leap for joy and humble itself in prayer to the realm of Glory.Ibid
…we would hope that you would encourage the most beautiful possible expression of the human spirits in your communities, through music among other modes of feeling.Universal House of Justice, 22 February 1971, to a National Spiritual Assembly
…music and singing are playing such an important and effective part in the teaching work…Universal House of Justice, 1 March 1972, to all National Spiritual Assemblies
Abdu’l-Baha and the Guardian both encouraged choral singing:
Make … their souls full of divine melodies and sacred (choral) music!Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of Abdul-Bahá Abbas, p 480, [The parentheses are apparently a clarification added in the translation].
Shoghi Effendi would urge that choir singing by men, women and children be encouraged in the Auditorium [of the Temple]…From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada, 2 April 1931
He thinks that it would especially be beautiful to see little children singing them in groups…From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, 22 March 1928
Some of the references to group singing in the Baha’i Writings could mean singing in unison. While many Christian hymns are written in four part harmony, most Christian congregations sing the melody in unison, while an organ or piano provides the harmony. So, when Abdu’l-Baha and the Guardian mention hymns (such as those composed by Louise “Shahnaz” Waite), it is not clear whether this is referring to choral singing or singing in unison:
I am hopeful that, during the coming Rizwan, a great feast shall be held in the land of the Mashrak-el-Azcar, a spiritual celebration prepared and the melodies of the violin and the mandolin and hymns in praise and glorification of the Lord of Hosts make all the audience joyous and ecstatic.Abdu’l-Baha, “Tablets of Abdul Bahá Abbas”, vol. I, p. 101)) [A Mashriqu’l-Adhkar or “Dawning Place of the Mention of God” is a Baha’i House of Worship.]
With regard to your question concerning the use of music in the Nineteen Day Feasts, he wishes you to assure all the friends that he not only approves of such a practice, but thinks it even advisable that the believers should make use, in their meetings, of hymns composed by Baha’is themselves, and also of such hymns, poems and chants as are based on the Holy Words.From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, 7 April 1935
In other places, however, the emphasis is on harmony, which means different notes at the same time, which for vocal music means choral singing:
Thus should it be among the children of men! The diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord.Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p 53
What is music? It is a combination of harmonious sounds. What is poetry? It is a symmetrical collection of words. Therefore, they are pleasing through harmony and rhythm.Abdu’l-Bahá’s words to Mrs. Mary L. Lucas, as quoted in “A Brief Account of My Visit to Acca”, pp. 11-14
Singing is especially important in connection with the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár:
Music in the House of Worship is to be vocal only, whether by singers or a singer.Universal House of Justice, 13 March 1964, to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States
And this music has to be live:
No doubt the excellent recordings available today would assure the highest quality of performance at low cost, but all references to vocal music in the central Edifice imply the physical presence of the singers.Ibid
In its Ridván 2012 letter, the Universal House of Justice announced the initiation of a process to build Houses of Worship in several countries and local communities. In this letter, the House of Justice specifically ties this development to “the correlation of worship and service”, “the coherence that exists among the community-building features of the Plan”, and “the burgeoning of a devotional spirit”. When a House of Worship is built, the community needs to be ready to fill its Auditorium with sacred music, so the creation of a choir could be seen as another good step on the path to preparation for the building of a House of Worship.
Shortly after the initiation of the project of building the final Continental House of Worship in Santiago, Chile, some members of the community there formed a choir, planning ahead for the need to provide choral music in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar in the future. Any community where a House of Worship will be built might want to do the same.
But it isn’t just communities with Houses of Worship that can benefit from group singing. We know that the core activities interact with one another to create a synergy that can only exist when all parts are working as a coherent whole. In a community with a House of Worship, the devotions and music experienced there reinforce the spiritual foundation of the believers, permitting them to grow into deeper paths of service. Any community can experience aspects of this by creating meaningful and sacred devotional gatherings and infusing them and other activities with choral music.
The benefits of having a local Baha’i choir are immense. Feasts and Holy Day commemorations can be adorned with beautiful, sacred music. Choral music attracts the hearts and attracts interest from the wider community.
There are also benefits for those who sing together. Choral Association Australia lists quite a few on their website, including the following:
• It develops our emotional lives since it is able to define the qualities of human emotion much more accurately than verbal language.http://www.caoa.org.au/index.php/useful-notes/benefits-of-choral-music, accessed 16 June 2014
• It has a spiritual dimension, which allows us to participate more actively or at a greater depth in the great faiths. At the same time it assists us in finding the spiritual within ourselves.
• In many forms it does not require high levels of technical skill or training. Nor does it require lots of current training to keep it going.
• Recent research seems to suggest that it may assist in developing intelligence.
Any choir requires a high level of dedication for it to succeed. It also requires time, space, regularity, sacrifice, and understanding – on the part of the singers, the director, and the community. What it does not require is large amounts of natural talent. Any voice teacher will tell you that good singers are made, not born. People need to want to sing and be willing to learn. Singing in a choir is different than singing alone, and it can take some time to learn how to do it.
A choir can be formed in a community in many different ways. It might start as a few people singing together and grow from there. It might be started by a director with a vision and lots of energy. It might be an initiative of people who want to sing and do what it takes to make it happen. However it happens, a local choir can add an incredible spirit and power to any local community. If you’re interested, give a shout out to our choir, Perfect Chord, or any other Baha’i choir you know of and you can expect to receive lots of information and encouragement.
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