I sing in the choir of my local Unitarian Universalist church, and the seed for what became the story “Harmony” got planted not long ago when I was asked to sing a duet with a woman in the church I didn’t know very well. The song was a sort of Irish sea ballad, an original composition written by a church member who was Jewish. Our church at the time was in a period of conflict over some issue or another, and my duet partner and I were on opposite sides of the conflict. I suspect that much of this—the Irish song written by the Jewish member, the congregation in the midst of conflict—will bring nods of recognition from anyone familiar with Unitarian churches.
I approached our first rehearsal with some not-sure-what-to-expect wariness. Would the conflict spill over into our singing? Would there be lots of judgmental eye rolling when one or the other of us missed a note or mistimed an entrance? There’s a real vulnerability to singing, especially when you’re singing a duet or a solo, and we each had solo parts in the song. With a piano, you can press the key for C and be pretty sure a C is what you’ll hear. With a voice, there’s more room for error, and in our choir—and I suspect in all choirs—error is very much part of the learning process.
What happened surprised me. The vulnerability that I felt carried over into awareness of the vulnerability that my singing partner must also be feeling, and that’s practically the definition of empathy. Through the act of singing together, something had changed. “Harmony” is not even close to being a fictionalized account of actual events, but the story was for me a way to look at what might happen when music brings together two people who have no business being together.
After the story published I had the occasion to talk with a man who has devoted significant parts of his life to exploring the therapeutic benefits of music, in particular its benefits for veterans suffering from PTSD. It’s his belief that at the core of PTSD are three cognitive distortions. One: others are bad. Two: I am bad. And three: the world is dangerous. When you make music together, he said, it’s hard to hang onto the idea that the people you’re making music with are bad. Once that distortion falls away, then “I am bad” starts to collapse as well. And then the world starts to look like a less dangerous place.
He seemed delighted when I told him about singing the duet in church.