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The benefits of singing a hymn

As a teacher, the start of every term comes with mixed emotions. 

There is regret for the end of the holidays, of course, but also excitement about what lies ahead; I suspect that these same emotions are also keenly felt by the boys, too.  The staff do have an INSET day to mentally ease into the term (an advantage over the boys), but I know that things have really begun when I walk down those steps into the Pilgrims’ Hall, and look out over those 200 hundred eager and excited faces.  The calm is punctuated by the first confident chords of a hymn, and this week, Jerusalem was the hymn of choice.  The boys and staff sang it with gusto, and it was wonderful. As it happens, we often start this term with Jerusalem because of the proximity to St George’s day (Sunday this year), and of course the hymn is closely associated with cricket, our main sport for the summer.

It is one of the hidden privileges of being a Pilgrim this opportunity to sing a hymn in assembly every Monday morning; some recent joiners, both pupils and staff, have mentioned how special it is.  I believe that singing hymns together is important for a myriad of reasons, but here are two of the (arguably) most important. 

Firstly, there is the act itself; starting the week with communal singing creates an esprit de corps that is perhaps difficult to quantify, but undoubtedly felt.  There is lots of research to show that singing, and in particular communal singing, is good for us; a quick search on the internet serves up some interesting articles such as this one: The Neuroscience of Singing.   Here we read that "The neuroscience of singing shows that when we sing our neurotransmitters connect in new and different ways. It fires up the right temporal lobe of our brain, releasing endorphins that make us smarter, healthier, happier and more creative. When we sing with other people this effect is amplified”. What particularly struck me in this article were two ideas which propose that “in a group setting, each group member feels the musical vibrations moving through their body simultaneously” and “You do not have to be an amazing singer to benefit from the basic biological benefits and with practice the benefits increase”; I have certainly felt the first, and as a not tremendously strong or experienced singer, I certainly identify with the second!

Secondly, there is the cultural element. Hymn singing introduces the boys to a wonderful canon of music that has been sung for generations, and this joins us with the countless men and women who have shared these songs over hundreds of years.  Many schools have either abandoned this practice, or moved to a more modern secular repertoire, and I, for one, feel that is a shame because it loses our connection with our past.  Hymns are shared history, and an important part of our Cultural Literacy.  They are also written to be sung communally and are often deceptively easy to both perform and remember (even for an amateur such as myself).  I can’t say that I recognised the importance of this myself as a young man, but the older I get, the more I value and cling to these hymns; my favourite, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, has become increasingly important to me over time, and makes me emotional every time I sing it.  The singing of To be a Pilgrim at the end of each term, and especially after Prize-Giving in the summer, is always both rousing and grounding for us all. 

This, it seems to me, is often how long held traditions work.  They may seem archaic, or even pointless, but the value lies how they bring us together, binding and uniting us in the shared experience, and connecting us to our past.  I am not a ‘tradition for tradition’s sake’ person, but I do worry about the loss of things that people have done together for a long time, as there are often reasons why these traditions developed in the first place and have become so cherished. 

Perhaps the boys would not identify the singing of the hymn as one of the highlights the week, but it is for me, and I believe passionately that it is an important part of the Pilgrims’ experience.  I believe that there is value in what the boys gain from it, even if they don’t recognise it now. 

I love singing a hymn in assembly every week, and I am lucky to do so in a school in which communal singing is both highly valued, and done to a tremendously high standard.  The Monday hymn is definitely one of the consistently good things about my week at Pilgrims’, and I value it hugely; I hope that the boys do too.

Alistair Duncan
Interim Head

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