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Song In The Home

( Originally Published 1920 )



BY A. A. Berle

NEXT to the ability to pray, the best gift that God has given to men is the ability to sing! This was a saying of Martin Luther, the truth of which has been verified by many generations of mankind since his time. The power of song in human life, is one of the most remarkable facts about human life, and the utilization which has been made, and is being made, of song is one of the wonderful stories of the increasing knowledge of men.

Long before the mechanism of the human voice was understood, or the influence of harmonious sounds upon the mind had been scientifically analyzed, it was known that the voice had wonderful curative powers. Powerful monarchs, great soldiers, influential statesmen, and leaders of men generally, sought to gain peace of mind, and effective release from the cares of life, by bringing sweet singers before them, the music of whose voices drove from their minds the recollection of their anxieties.

An even more wonderful manifestation is that recorded in the Bible about King Saul, who unquestionably, as we now know, had periodical fits of insanity. At such times they brought to him the youthful David, the sweet singer of Israel, and we are told that the singing of the youth drove away the "evil spirit." It was from this observation that medical men first began to suspect that music had a medicinal character, and might be used helpfully for diseased minds, and this is now done in every institution where the sick in mind are treated. But what is thus good for the sick in mind is equally good for those who are not sick !

Almost all animals make crooning noises when they are happy, and the mother who sways back and forth, making pleasant noises even if she does not call it "singing," as she presses her child to her breast, is really illustrating an almost universal law. In man, this harmonious noise has developed into song, and thus song has become one of the great arts, and the greatest single gift of the human race.

Almost every great moment in human experience has been ex-pressed in song. The birth of children is hailed with song. The adventures of youth in love and war are expressed in tender or heroic songs. Marriage is one of the great occasions for outbursts of singing, and birthdays, and anniversaries of all kinds, are universally heralded by singing. Even down to old age and death, song follows us, the last rites being usually accompanied with musical expression by the voice, and some of the noblest eulogies of the poet and the musician, have been brought forth in the funeral song.

The reason for this is that song is the medium through which we tell our feelings. What cannot be uttered in speech can often be sung in a song. Sometimes great messages, which minstrels have not dared to tell their rulers in plain language, have been conveyed through the medium of singing. 1n almost every great ceremony of any kind, it is the voice of song that has given it the proper setting. That is why we so often gather the great chorus after a war, to sing the glories of peace, or equally to gird the loins of the soldier going forth, by strains of song. The one releases the pent-up feelings that have been held down by the anxieties of the war, and the other hides the same anxieties that the soldier may not see the breaking hearts revealed in the faces of his loved ones as he marches away.

The public expression in song is therefore well known and universal. But it is in the home that the use and beauty of song reaches its highest altitude. Here we have the sweetest emotions, the tenderest feelings, the deepest feelings and the most piercing sorrows. Here love which cannot be uttered must find an expression. Here the anxieties, which are akin to life itself, must find a way to come to the surface, and when the lips will not speak, and the power of other action is paralyzed, the song from the soul and spirit comes like a heaven-sent messenger and gives the touch of liberty and peace. The home is the place where song should begin, as it is the place where the last song on earth is sung. Home singing, both by the individuals in the home, and by the entire household together, should be the fixed rule of every home.

Strangely enough, there is a superstition still surviving that there are some persons who can never learn to sing. This is not true, except of people who are in some way defective, either in the ears or in the throat. Nobody should take it for granted that he cannot sing, and of children it should be proved beyond all possibility of doubt, before they are permitted to stop making the effort. To give up, or to fail to develop the habit of singing, is to deny to children especially one of the most useful of arts and perhaps the most helpful personal resource for happiness of mind. By all means, teach every child that it must sing, and use every effort and employ every device known to make him sing.

Many parents have told me that they could not sing themselves, and that it was natural that their children should not sing, but this is al-most never true. The littlest children take naturally to song, and sometimes great musicians develop from a soil where it was once believed that no singer could emerge. If you think you cannot sing, at least make a "friendly noise," as a child once called some attempts of my own ! But in later years I found that I could sing Latin and Greek and multiplication tables, and almost everything else to my children to their great delight and pleasure.

In these days when musical instruments have multiplied so that almost every household has one of some kind, there is some danger that people will substitute the instrument for the voice. Take great care to avoid this. Do not let the noblest instrument of all go uncultivated, because it is not only the best, but often the most profitable. There is no resource so valuable, viewed even from the commercial standpoint, as a pleasant and musical voice, and singing in the home tends to modify the harshness and the roughness of voices, which are not naturally sweet and musical. Do not let the Victrola, for example, educate your feet in dancing, while it unfits your voice for singing! Sing with it, and with every instrument, because the only reason for the instrument, and the only reason you have it, is because the greatest instrument of all, the human voice, preceded it. It was to repro-duce what the voice brings into the heart and soul of man that instruments were invented.

In the early days of our country when the land was but sparsely populated, and people lived often a great distance from each other, they came together not only for the social companionship, but often for singing, and thus the earliest singing schools began. Many old people are still living, who can tell what these community "sings" did for them, and we, as a nation, are happily beginning community singing again. In this way, there is begotten a tide of common feelings which makes much for the joy and the peace of a village or a small town.

But if this is true of a village or country settlement, it is even more true in the home. The singing of hymns does much to cultivate the spirit of family religion, and helps to smooth out the rough places in home life. A wise mother, hearing an angry speech from one of her children to another, stepped into the breach and asked the angry child to sing what she had just been saying ! The effect was electrical. The child looked confused and felt how stupid it would be to try to sing what had just come so harshly out of her throat. Now said the mother, "When you are tempted to angry or rough speech, just try to sing it and you will feel how foolish and unreasonable such speeches are."

Out of this instruction came a very funny episode. Another of the children of the same household was in the midst of an angry discussion, when the other children unanimously cried out, "Sing it!" It is needless to say that the anger was dispelled, and the whole group burst out into laughter. Thus a "soft voice turneth away wrath" as well as a "soft answer." It has been said, and probably truly, that men never begin evil deeds with singing. Melody does not lend itself naturally to what is disagreeable or ill-tempered or criminal. Careless singing to evil sentiments has been tried often enough,-but it is rather dismal, unless a thorough state of criminality has been reached.

In most American homes, it is probable, that to begin the day with singing is well nigh impossible, though families with school children might easily arrange it, as is done now in many households; but it is surely possible for most homes to end the day with song, especially the "good night song" when the children go to bed. This custom should begin with the early life of the children, and be continued as long as possible. In some homes, as in my own, we sing together when we meet and when we part, and often in between because the songs we all, parents and children alike, grew up together with, form the strongest bond of our family life. We have sung our way through life together, and these songs, even the simplest of them, are landmarks of our progress together.

The science of tone production in small children has now reached a very important stage, and I have heard small children in New York City do very wonderful things, singing, which we would have been told a very few years since was absolutely impossible to the child voice. But as I listened to them I thought not merely of the tone-production, but the happier life, the more peaceful homes, and the greater usefulness as fathers and mothers, which these children would achieve, because of this cultivation of the voice.

One point in the family singing which I must take this occasion to impress upon the reader is that there should be great pains taken to get accurate vocalization and articulation. Do not let the children say the words of a song in a slovenly, slipshod fashion; make them say them as clearly as they can and have some one with a clear voice and a good articulation, go over the song first, while the children hum the tune and listen to the words. Then they will begin right. They will hear the words as they actually are and they will speak them with precision and distinctness. All this makes not only for pleasure, but for other things as well.

The ancient Greeks thought so much of this that they placed musical training, singing especially, upon a plane of importance with the highest of their educational subjects, and the great Olympic games, which we now think of chiefly as athletic sports, gave their highest prizes and their greatest honors, not to the athlete, but to the sweetest singer. Some day we shall revive that also in our Olympic games.

There is a direct relation between the moral life and song. The whole question of behavior is affected by habits of singing which is only just beginning to be understood. All the passions are so allied to the nervous system and so many moral acts have their origin in the nerves that whatever can possibly affect this part of the human organism should receive the closest attention from everybody.

For example, it has been noticed by scientists that people with the singing habit, if not otherwise sick or disordered, lead more cheerful lives, and live longer than others. The disposition which produces violence is less among such persons and where it is properly guided and controlled by the singing habit is one of the most powerful incentives to work and industry.

Many years ago the English parliament sent a commission to Germany to find out why it was that the German workmen were so much more productive than the English workmen. It had been found that German goods were underselling the English products in most of the markets of the world where the two came into competition. They found a number of reasons of which it is not necessary to speak here.

But one of the most interesting of them all was that they found that the German workmen wherever it did not interfere with the work were in the habit of singing over their work and that this made them happier, more ready to work patiently, and more productive. They found that most factories had bands and singing societies and that in their homes the families joined in the singing. In many cases they found that the wives and children were also members of these work-men's choruses and that the entire industry showed a happier life because of this fact.

They also found that in such factories the moral life of the people was cleaner, more wholesome, and more sound in many ways. This is undoubtedly the result wherever singing, especially home singing, is the rule and where it enters into the social life of the people. A similar result was observed a few years ago in New England, where the moral tone of villages was instantly raised by the introduction of much singing and where the youth were encouraged to sing at home. Near the place where this is written stands a little white house on a hill which is still known as the place where the J. family lived where the people used to assemble for singing many years ago because the entire J. family were singers and sang at home. This family for years filled the church choir from its own members, and one of the wise men of the village says that as a moral influence that family was almost as valuable as the church itself.

Song relieves moral tension. This is true not only because the sounds are musical and rhythmic, but because it releases muscular stiffness and energy. Most of the hard questions of the moral life arise when we are used up as we say, and are tired out, and the ordinary muscular energies are tied up and we cannot move easily or think freely. Singing instantly changes all this and even when the causes of the tension are real and very troublesome, song starts things and makes the hard path easier.

A very singular case of this was one that occurred at Buffalo some years ago during a strike when thousands of angry workmen were gathered together and undoubtedly were bent on violence. They were ready to burn and tear things up generally when in haste and fear some of the people sent for the priest of the parish where most of these workmen attended, they being Poles and many of them unable to speak English.

When the priest arrived, being a wise man and a man who under-stood human nature, knowing that you cannot reason with an angry man or one whose passions are so wrought up that he cannot listen to what you are saying, when he saw the condition of things, he mounted a barrel and began to sing one of the most common Polish national songs. Instantly it awoke feelings of tenderness and remembrance of the home land far away and the anger was assuaged and presently a few and then more and finally all joined in singing the Polish form of "Home, Sweet Home." Then when they became calmer he began to reason with them and told them that the way to get their rights was not by destroying things but by patiently reasoning out the right and wrong of the matter.

Soon they were calm enough to agree to wait and appoint a committee, and the violence passed off and there was no further trouble feared by anyone. That was a great triumph for song. But the victory for uprightness and calm dealing with human rights was not won at Buffalo but in the far-away Polish homes where these men had been taught by their mothers and had in their childhood imbibed the love of truth and kindness and they saw themselves once more in their childhood innocence and happiness and were made ready to try again.

Discouragement and fear are thus put to flight by the singing voice. When you are cast down, sing. When you are afraid, sing. And if you have been taught to sing and love to sing, you will sing long be-fore the discouragement or the fear reaches a dangerous stage. Nobody who has the habit of singing at home will be so lonely that in the most lonely moments he cannot find relief enough to tide him over till the loneliness passes away and he is himself again.

The same thing is true when it comes to the grosser temptations which are common to men. These are closely allied to the physical condition, and song is their natural enemy. A famous prison superintendent when he came to the prison of which he became the head found the spirit of discontent rife among the convicts and everybody in despair over the conditions. That was why his predecessor had resigned and they had sent for him.

Among the first things that he did was to cause the prisoners when they marched from their cells to their shops and to their meals and back again to sing to their marching. Sometimes he gave them funny song sometimes he gave them songs of sentiment, and at other times he gave them songs of the heart. One of the inspectors from whom I had the story told me that the effect was almost miraculous. The temper of the convicts improved almost over night. Their work was better, their health was better, and everything about them seemed to improve at once.

If prison life can be made endurable by the agency of song, how much it should add to those who in freedom and happiness around the fireside see only those they love and who love them and for whom it is a joy to labor and to love. Here too there are endless stories to be told which appeal to children and grown-ups alike.

A banker in one of our large cities was found to be a dishonest man. When his dishonesty was discovered the other officers of the bank said, "If we had known that he was not happy at home we should not have had such confidence in him." The unfortunate man himself made a most interesting statement of his own downfall. Stating many things which we do not need to record here he made this striking comment: "Our home used to be happy till we stopped gathering around the piano and singing together. When L. (his oldest child) left the home something seemed to drop out; it was she who played the instrument and sang to us and with us and that kept us together. I rarely left my home in the evening except with some members of my family till L. left us to be married. We seemed to have no substitute for that hour together. I never visited a gambling house in my life till we stopped singing at home-and had nothing else that we did together."

That statement will be found in the records of one of the courts of New York City. It is a most interesting statement and probably many another home will find that song is a unifying bond which does much more for the members of the family than they care to reveal to each other. There are many things members of the same family cannot say to each other that they can sing to each other and express through the feelings and the words of a common song. That should always be kept in mind and may be found the real bond of fellowship by the members of the household. The demonstrations of affection which we all like and all need sometimes are impossible because of the intensity of the feelings and the depth of the affection. Then song becomes the medium by which both get their outlet.

This culture of the emotions through song in the home has a vast significance in the relation of all the members of the household. Song is a great dispeller of suspicion, and a great medium of mutual under-standing. A great prophet once made a statement to the effect that the deepest things of the nature must be spoken to the heart. It is the heart interest of the home that is most precious. Jenny Lind, the great singer, whose name for years after they had heard her made men weep, as a young singer was the pupil of the man who later became her husband. "She can't sing," he said, though she had a magnificent technical control of her voice, "but I will marry her and break her heart, and then she will sing." And he did marry her. And he did break her heart. And forever afterward when Jenny Lind sang, men felt the agony of that aching heart, which had been broken on the altar of art.

Parents and children, and the home-folks generally, have their inward heart sorrow and distresses, and often hearts would break but for the consolations of the sympathy and tenderness of the home. Those sympathies and that tenderness find their utterance better, and more surely, in song than in any other way. Caresses are often clumsy and the time for them seems ill-chosen. Words often seem barren, even when they are sincerely spoken. But a song which has meant companionship, sympathy, fellowship in suffering, and common pain, carries its own message with it, and bids the pain to cease, and sorrow to depart.

During our Civil War two armies were camped in Tennessee within hearing distance of each other. During the evening they sang the songs of the North and the South, and sent back the challenges of their respective war songs. But as it drew to midnight, somebody started to sing "Home, Sweet Home" and after a pause both armies took up the strain and soon the whole line was singing the same song, on both sides, and before they sank to sleep to resume on the morrow the dreadful business of killing, they were lulled to rest by a song, which most of them had learned at their mother's knee, and were given there-by a few brief hours of happy dreams of home and kindred and love.

The traditions which song makes are of the most lasting character and are among the choicest cultural possessions of life. When the struggle for existence sharpens and the young person ceases to be a boy or a girl, and leaves the parental roof, all ties become more soluble and it is easy to lose the precious things which home and parents have given. Whatever strengthens these ties is of such value that it should be cherished as among the most worthy of personal resources.

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