“A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall” – Tuscany Project and human evolution

Last week was the week of the Tuscany Project, a wonderful annual singing workshop which I was lucky enough to attend several times. It has helped me tremendously not only with my singing, but with the whole idea of being seen and sharing with generosity. Last year I was able to go for the 20th anniversary celebration of the Tuscany Project, when we sang gospel songs together with Philip Woods. My “classmate” from last year, Jesi Mullins, an actor and singer in New York, writes beautifully about her experience with the Tuscany project on her blog. I could not attend this year, but I was thinking about my friends there the whole week –  Belle, Anja, B.Z., Ron and many others…

Recently, in a leadership training in Belgium, we were lucky enough to have Marcel, an accomplished pianist as one of the participants. Two evenings in a row, he sat at the piano at the seaside hotel, as an international group gathered around and sang. It was interesting to see what repertoire we could agree on – Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Evita, Queen – from Venezuela to India, through Spain and Holland, we all knew (roughly) the songs. And technology (two iPads  quickly searched for lyrics) helped. The playlist was still on a good old napkin … The following days, we all spoke about the incredible sense of bonding that these few hours of singing together have provided.


These two experiences made me re-read a book by Daniel Levitin: The World in Six Songs. Levitin, a musician and neuroscientist,  manages to fit all songs into six categories, which correspond to basic evolutionary functions – friendship, joy, religion, knowledge, comfort and love.

He also notes that “today, music is produced by few and consumed by many. But this is a situation of such historical and cultural rarity that it should hardly be considered. The dominant mode of musicality throughout the world has been communal and participatory. (…) One hundred years ago, families would gather around after supper and sing and play music together to pass the time.” In the radio documentary I completed last year for the Czech Radio, Ms Severova, born in 1922, talks to me about the times before the war in her mountain village: ”We used to sing, a lot. A lot. Every day”. And then she sings me a song. She was listening one day to the radio and heard a song about Třeboň and Prague and Kutná Hora, and thought: I should compose a song about Trinksaifen, my village. And she did. Lyrics and music. Ms Severová is unfortunately not alive any more, but her song is. She just sat down and wrote a song. That’s the spirit. Even without a Coursera course on Songwriting.

Levitin also believes that “synchronous, coordinated song and movement were what created the strongest bonds between early humans, and these allowed for the formation of larger living groups, and eventually society as we know it”. He quotes a study by Ian Cross, who shows that it is easier for an individual to synchronize finger tapping with another individual than with a metronome, even if the metronome is more predictable. Frictions within a group could be smoothed out by the feeling of togetherness created by singing together. He also quotes William McNeill’s study about synchronized military drill: “Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to the participation in collective ritual.”

OK, so few conclusions for you today: Sing! Sing with others! Move while singing! Or join a military band! Or find your own way! Go to Tuscany Project 2014! Make music! Write songs! Synchronize with people you like! Synchronize also with people you do not like that much! Change the world! Enjoy the summer!

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