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Devotion: The Heartbeat of the Message

This devotion was shared by NLC soprano Christina Myers before rehearsal on January 20th.

The Heartbeat of the Message

I grew up in a household with a Native American adopted brother, and a father who is also a quarter Native American (he’s in the photo with me). I was lucky enough to go to several pow-wows in my childhood, and my brother still drums at them in Canada. I loved them. Aside from the incredible sights of the dancers in their fancy dresses, the drum beat really permeates the crowd and becomes a part of you. You find that eventually, your heart starts to beat with the drum. This is what Dr. Armstrong might call a "tactus" - to me, it's a heartbeat. 

A little background on the Native American drum:

“It is said that the drum was brought to the Indian people by a woman, and therefore there is a woman spirit that resides inside the drum. Appropriately, it is to be treated with respect and care, and strict behavior is expected of anyone coming in contact with the drum. The drum is often thought to help bring the physical and mental side of a person back in touch with his or her spiritual or heart side. As with many things in the Indian culture, the drum is used to bring balance and rejuvenation to a person through their participation in dancing, singing or listening to the heartbeat.” (http://www.tpt.org/powwow/drum.html)

There’s a heartbeat in every song we sing, and it’s often the most exciting part of the piece to me. The repetitive lines in something like Carol Barnett’s “McKay,” that can get very tedious for some singers, are the heartbeat of the song to me (“O rapturous scene, O living green”). Bach’s Mass in B Minor, as David pointed out, starts with a heartbeat, and that heartbeat continues throughout the piece until, rather dramatically, Jesus is crucified and the heartbeat stops. Even something like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” has a heartbeat, though not in such an obvious manner. It’s there, in everything we do.

Indeed, even as we sing, the heartbeats of choir members sync. From a study reported on the BBC website, where a group of high school choir members wore heart monitors while they sang together:

“But what really struck him was that it took almost no time at all for the singers' heart rates to become synchronized. The readout from the pulse monitors starts as a jumble of jagged lines, but quickly becomes a series of uniform peaks. The heart rates fall into a shared rhythm guided by the song's tempo.

‘The members of the choir are synchronizing externally with the melody and the rhythm, and now we see it has an internal counterpart,’ Vickhoff says."

This is just one little study, and these findings might not apply to other singers. But all religions and cultures have some ritual of song, and it's tempting to ask what this could mean about shared musical experience and communal spirituality.

"‘It's a beautiful way to feel. You are not alone but with others who feel the same way,’ Vickhoff says.” (http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-23230411)

For me, that is the essence of this program. You are not alone, but aligning with others who feel the same way. I’ve been blessed with a pretty great life, and I don’t know the struggles of many of the groups whose music we’re singing. I recently got mad when my free snow-blower wouldn't start, and sent a tersely-worded text message to the people who gave me said free snow-blower, which I admit is wildly obnoxious. But while we sing, we come out of ourselves and our struggles, our heartbeats align with each other, and our heartbeats align with these groups whose songs we sing. And to me, that’s pretty magical.

Listen to the Black Lodge Singers playing the heartbeat: Black Lodge Singers – Crow Hop