It’s ironic but totally healthy that we mark our nation’s independence with a celebration of dictatorship, interdependence, and e pluribus unum.
Each year countless Americans celebrate the birth of a nation by calming our heart rates and boosting our endorphin levels. We improve our lung function and ability to fight infections while reducing our need for pain medication.
This elevates our mood, reduces stress, and eases our depression symptoms.
We experience a sense of purpose, and feel more connected and empathetic toward the people around us–
–by singing the National Anthem together.
A Chorus of Disapproval
When I picked up When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink, I never suspected that it would change my bearish outlook on choral singing.
During my early years, my parents were in the church choir. The more I listened to Top 40 radio, the less I liked church singing. (Our choir sang stuffy hymns, not classic rock, not even spirited gospel.)
The sole benefit I attributed to choral music in those days was that the choir loft did not have a view of the back pews. My brother and I would ride to church with my parents a half hour before the service began, wait until people showed up so that we would be seen, greet the minister, duck out a side door, and walk home to watch wrestling on TV.
From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes total sense that my parents enjoyed choral singing. For our ancient ancestors, belonging to a group was essential for survival.
The need for belonging built into our brain structure made its way to me through a hand-me-down clarinet. My doctor recommended that I play a wind instrument as a therapy for asthma.
I couldn’t get out of practicing thirty minutes a day. I had to do it, and my homework, before I was allowed to watch TV. To mitigate the boredom, I learned to play. My parents signed me up for band.
A Band of Interdependent Brothers (and Sisters)
Playing in a band probably delivered most of the psychological and mental benefits of social synchrony that Pink cites in his book, though I didn’t know why at the time.
I didn’t enjoy getting up early to attend rehearsals before first period, but I enjoyed playing music more than diagramming sentences, working out quadratic equations, or memorizing the principle products of Paraguay.
I was as socially awkward as other kids my age, but within the band tribe I had a certain status. My asthma-induced practice regimen landed me in first chair, sometimes ahead of upperclassmen. Since clarinets are to band what violins are to orchestra, I usually carried the melody.
Woodwind players skewed female. Growing up with one brother and no sisters, I sometimes found it challenging to negotiate friendships with members of the opposite sex. The girls who approached me to ask how to count tricky rhythmic figures or time signatures sometimes gave me sisterly advice.
The interdependence I shared with the male and female members of the band made me feel more connected to them than to, say, geometry class members. Pink’s secrets of synchronized interdependence help explain why.
Syncing to the Boss
When we sing the National Anthem at an Independence Day concert, or sporting event, it goes much better if we follow the leader.
Our high school’s music director was Stephen J Platko. (That I can remember his name when few other teachers names come to mind says something about why the role of the boss is crucial.) Good conductors are benevolent dictators.
He selected all the music so there were no internal squabbles or infighting about what we would play. The role of the boss in group timing according to Pink is “someone apart from the group itself,” Platko’s instrument was the baton, “to set the pace, maintain the standards, and focus the collective mind.”
Syncing to the Tribe
Though we were supposed to sync with our boss by looking up from the music once in a while, things really fell apart when we fell out of sync with each other.
Pink’s secrets to interdependence within the tribe include code, garb, and touch.
The tribal code includes rituals or activities that the group initiates independently of the boss. The band parents raised money each year to treat the graduating musicians and music director to dinner and a show. (Dinner theater was popular in suburbia at the time.)
Our garb was our band uniform, black pants and jacket worn with white shirt and tie for indoor concerts, a colorful overlay and cadet-style hat with plume for outdoor performances and parades.
For touch, Pink writes that members of the Congressional Chorus sometimes join hands as they sing. Though touch is a vital component of belonging, we mostly kept our hands on our instruments. And I suspect that my parents in the choir loft kept their hands to themselves.
Syncing with the Heart
Pink cites research that suggests “operating in sync expands our openness to outsiders and makes us more likely to engage in ‘pro-social’ behavior. In other words, coordinating makes us better people–and being better people makes us better coordinators.”
I’ve experienced this most recently in connection with my partner’s father passing away. The former high school band director organized intricate marching band shows that required a high degree of synchronized playing and movement. Many of his former students joined together to form other musical groups and scholarships in his honor. They remembered that experience even though he retired from teaching forty years ago.
Ten Minute Exercise
Whether you can carry a tune or not, there are many opportunities to enjoy the physical and psychological benefits of participating in social interdependence. It’s well worth ten minutes searching for activities in your area that are in sync with your interests.
Running and hiking groups tend to sync up.
Social dancing syncs us with partners and includes touch.
Yoga classes meet the requirements, as do tai chi or qi gong.
For other interdependent activities, you can try these syncing games from the world of improv.
Or on Independence Day, simply oooh and ahhh together in sync with the fireworks.