In search of harmony – finding ‘the real thing’

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In search of harmony – finding ‘the real thing’

Singers and performers often talk of the come down after a performance. But what is it about the performance that it leaves us feeling a sense of emptiness? Even when there is a buzz or elation from a ‘good’ performance there is often a crash afterwards... Why is that and what does this really have to do with harmony?

At 12 years-old, wedding breakfasts were generally something to be endured rather than enjoyed. But this time would be different. On a small platform, just a few yards from my seat, four rather oddly dressed gentlemen appeared – their red stripy waistcoats and bow ties standing out amongst the sea of men in their beige and navy blue. I don’t know what I was wearing and it doesn’t really matter, but 21 years later, I had my own rather jazzily patterned silver paisley waistcoat with matching bow tie and a white tuxedo, having followed in the footsteps of this unexpected quartet.

It was when they started to sing that my eyes opened wide and my ears even wider. They sang in a way I had never heard before and it ‘spoke’ to me deeply. They blended their voices and it was like magic, creating a harmonious sound that simply melted me. It was something I never forgot and finally just over twenty years later, I found my way to a local a cappella harmony singing club.

On my first evening I arrived early and was greeted by that same sound, from a room where four men were rehearsing as a quartet. The harmonious sounds they were producing were once again, ‘music to my ears’ and I was hooked. How did they do it? How did they create those chords and more so, that feeling that came with them?

For the next 12 years I sang close harmony and barbershop style music increasingly, both as part of a chorus and in quartets. We sang for fun, in competition, did gigs and practised as often as we could, especially in the car. I was evangelical about singing in this way and imagined that I would be a close harmony singer for the rest of my life. I became music team leader and then chairman of the National Barbershop Silver Medal Chorus, and was a finalist in the UK National Barbershop Competition. In a sense, it was my life.

But during the latter part of this period, I started to notice something uncomfortable –– almost every week on the way home from rehearsal I felt bereft. It was all over for another week and I was coming down from my high. Now this may not seem like a big deal but it was like being a kind of junkie – I needed my choral fix like an addict needs their hit.

How was it that the sound I was hooked on was harmonious to the ears and not to the rest of me? I could feel this was a version of harmony, but how can you have a version of harmony – it either is or it isn’t, right?

What if the greatest harmony in the world, perfected through years of training, was no different than the artifice of a beautiful looking woman photo-shopped to inhuman precision on the cover of a magazine?

Was it possible that the ear could be fooled, no different to the eye?

The real X-Factor

If my ears were fooled by the sounds of harmony, there was part of me that wasn’t. It was the part of me that felt that hollowness in the aftermath of the performance. My response to this had been to get another hit, sing some more… but where does that end? At some point I had to stop singing and feel that aching sadness inside me once again. The sadness went deep and I wanted to avoid it so much – but I could feel it and that fact was undeniable.

Maybe it is ok to accept that ‘what goes up must come down’? This is surely preferable to fighting what is inevitable, but I could feel something else within and I couldn’t let that something go. If this was a ‘version of harmony’, then is there a deeper reality that is true harmony? And if there is, what is the missing link, the x-factor that is the difference between the two?

Around this time in my life I found myself drawn to attend a weekend workshop called ‘Transformation through Sound’. There was an irony to this because I only saw the flyer for the event because I was singing there with my close-harmony buddies. I honoured my feelings and went along, immediately feeling at home amongst a diverse group of about 30 people. What I experienced was remarkable and this was in spite of the rather unflattering and cavernous sports hall style environment that certainly didn’t lend itself well to beautiful harmonics. In very short time, the whole group, most of whom were not experienced or trained singers, had united in freestyle harmony singing, allowed to express themselves openly just so long as they stayed connected to themselves and to the group. After two days of singing in this way, I went away... and there was no come down, no sadness, no need for a further ‘injection of harmony’ – I just felt full.

What was the ‘x-factor’ that made all the difference? Connection!

The whole foundation of this way of singing was built on the connection to self and through that to the fullness of the voice and then to the fullness of the group sound.

I can only describe it as being plugged in to the grid. When I was not plugged in I felt deeply needy and that I was using singing to fill that need. Singing from this place of need was like imploring the audience to adore me, as if to say, “I need your love to make me feel ok”. Instead I was now stating; “I am love and I am here to reflect love back to you”. I had reconnected to a spring like essence within me that enabled an entirely different way of expressing myself.

At first I questioned the absence of the emotional highs and lows. Even when I met the woman who is now my wife I had a moment when I asked myself if the absence of elation was right. “Shouldn’t I feel on cloud nine?” I asked myself. But the awareness of this innermost connection had changed other things in life as well as the way I approached singing. It changed every relationship I had from one of ‘seeking love’ to one of ‘being love’. With this, I had rediscovered a consistent basis for life that was and is essentially joy-full and truly harmonious, rather than a desperate search for more and more moments of pleasure or happiness.

I had gone along to a singing workshop, but discovered a whole new approach to life in the process. Singing in this connected way is different to anything I had been taught before, but so is living with this same connection at the heart of everything I do. Life had been almost entirely focussed on what I felt I needed to get from outside of me – to make myself feel better and relieve the perpetual sense that ‘something was missing’.

In making this reconnection to the fullness that is constantly alive in me, life transforms in the awareness that I can live this in every moment. Sure, there is consistency to be learned, but I now have a whole new marker of what harmony can truly feel like. What is more, as I make more self-loving choices on a regular basis, I can remain connected for long periods of time. The result is a life where joy is commonplace – and something I have every reason to believe is available to every one of us equally.


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    By Richard Mills