Singing and Self-fulfilment

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soundofmusicPretty much anybody involved in singing is likely to be proselytising about it at times. They’ll tell you how great it makes them feel physically and emotionally, and how it makes them feel more alive and true to themselves. It can all get a little mushy and self-congratulatory, especially at events that gather a lot of singers together. ‘Singing,’ Bob Chilcott announced to delegates at the Association of British Choral Directors convention one year, ‘can change the world!’

Yeah, so what we do is special and wonderful and powerful and important, but can we just get over ourselves? I sometimes think.

Every so often, though, you come across something that makes you think: this really is special and important and actually not mushy at all. An example would be this account by a lady called Jacqueline of her experience in joining the Reading Barberettes, quoted in Voicebox towards the end of last year:

It’s lovely not just to be a wife and mother but to have an interest that stimulates not only me but those around me. Singing with the chorus makes me feel like a complete person. No one takes it for granted any more that I will be around to do this or that or the other, they check with me first and that makes me feel valued.

I have just been re-reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and it keeps bringing Jacqueline’s experience to mind. Friedan’s central point was that, important as home-making and child-rearing may be, in the modern world they are not activities that take up the full capacities of adult human beings. The post-war women who married young and had lots of babies were as a consequence either climbing the walls with frustration or sinking into depression in the absence of something meaningful that will use their intelligence and energy.

Friedan draws on Maslow’s ideas about self-actualisation to develop her argument – indeed I find it quite shocking to discover that only 50 years ago it was necessary to argue that it is a concept as valid for women as it is for men! And Jacqueline’s tale brings out some key points about self-actualisation. It’s not merely that the activity is stimulating for her (which of course singing in a chorus is – it requires skill acquisition in all sorts of different dimensions), but that it is stimulating to people around her. She is making a contribution to the chorus’s success by participating, and the chorus is contributing to the success of the events it performs at. Whether amateur or professional in status, artistic activity needs a social context to be meaningful; it needs to be making a contribution to the wider community.

And to do that, you have to make a commitment. Friedan tells of all sorts of ‘self-improvement’ activities available to housewives in the 1950s that completely failed to solve women’s feelings of emptiness and boredom. The problem wasn’t necessarily that they didn’t offer a sufficient challenge (golf, painting and the study of history can all be pursued to very high levels), but that they were designed to fit around the primary role of home-making without making any difference to it. Jacqueline’s account, however, articulates really clearly how making a serious commitment to the wider community necessarily involves putting it first at times, and how this in turn makes her family value her time and attention more. The sense of reward is absolutely predicated on inconveniencing those she loves.

Fortunately for Jacqueline as well as for the women that Friedan studied, husbands and children seem to like wives and mothers who are happy and fulfilled and making a difference to the world outside the home: ‘My family are so proud of me,’ she says.

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