Traditional German male choirs look pretty old in the twenty-first century. Sing-along formats, however, such as “pack singing” are booming. In any case, Germans’ desire to sing remains unbroken.
An “in” spot in Darmstadt, an elongated cellar with rough stone walls and a barrel vault. Two hundred people, mostly middle-aged, have gathered here for “Rudelsingen”, pack singing. That may sound dangerous, but actually it’s harmless. In the front stands the “pack leader” Jürgen Siewert, who launched this kind of singing together. The educational scientist at the University of Siegen and enthusiastic choirmaster operates a laptop which beams the lyrics onto a screen, gives the cues and animates the audience; his musical partner, Steffen Walter, works the keyboard.
A TV spot for pack singing
The group kicks off with John Miles’s Music. Then it moves on to pop songs, old hits and new hits on the current charts, with Funiculi, Funiculà, an Italian evergreen. And towards the end, even “real opera” (Siewert), the popular prisoners’ chorus from Giuseppe Verdi's Nabucco. Although this spontaneous choir has never rehearsed together, let alone appeared before, and no sheet music has been issued, you don’t have to hold your ears. False notes are drowned out in the continuous, enthusiastic forte. “People just want to sing, in choir, without practicing, doing this and that, but rather simply getting together and jumping into it”, says Siewert. Better to sing together than alone in the shower.
In fact, besides the effect of community-building, singing is also considered health-promoting. It supports breathing and intestinal activity, regulates heartbeat and blood pressure, gets the circulation and oxygenation of the blood going. In addition to the physical factors, on the psychological side it can support self-healing, concentration and social skills, fight anger and stress, release tension and reduce aggression. This is related to control of the breath, has an effect on physical and mental balance and thus ultimately reinforces the feeling of vitality. No wonder, then, that singing is an identity-building activity, which has a positive effect on individuals as well as groups.
Choir and tradition
Such casual, cheerful events as “pack singing” are light-years away from what is commonly thought of as the German choir tradition. The predominantly male-dominated choral societies and glee clubs, which were mainly founded in the nineteenth century in the train of swelling nationalism, look pretty old now. In fact, classical male choirs, which cultivate the traditional body of songs, are struggling with recruitment problems, especially in rural areas, as Nicole Eisinger of the German Choral Association, in which around 21,000 of the approximately 60,000 choirs in Germany are organized, confirms.
Yet, on the whole, the German choral scene is alive and kicking. For example, children’s and youth choirs have experienced a veritable boom in recent years, says Friederike Dahlmann, Managing Director of Pueri Cantores, the association of Catholic boys’, girls’, children’s and youth choirs. Ten years ago there were 300 such choirs; today there are 450, with a total of 19,000 young singers. Something similar can be heard from the Choral Association of the Protestant Church in Germany (CEK). In sum, the 28 German choral associations, both secular and religious, listed around 2,156 million members in 2015/16 (source: statista.com).
Why the upswing?
The reasons for the upswing cannot be clearly established. Perhaps TV casting shows, which are especially popular with young people and, since 2002, in broadcasts such as Germany Looks for a Superstar and subsequent contest formats such as The Voice of Germany and Voice Kids have lured young singing talent onto television stages, play a role. Reliable figures are not yet available; probably the media-mediated euphoria and the more intense youth work of choral associations also contribute to the continuing enthusiasm for singing.
Or simply the passage of time and the fact that choir singing has been able to liberate itself from the reputation of German chauvinism and conservative diehards. “We’ve probably surmounted the biggest Nazi trauma by now”, says Michael Betzner-Brandt, a music educator in Berlin and organizer of various “sing-along formats” on the pattern of pack singing. After all, the Nazi-pushed enthusiasm for monumental singing and propagandistic abuse of traditional German songs ensured a long-lingering scepticism about all forms of singing that could be associated even remotely with the activities of those years.
A choral flashmob in Mainz
In any case, the desire to sing together seems unbroken today, despite distracting digital seductions, and has even lead to an increasing trend, especially among younger people, to integrate themselves long-term into club structures. And the digital world also offers new opportunities for choir singing. Hip choir flash mobs find a visibility on internet platforms like YouTube hardly comparable to anything possible in analogue days. Flash mobs such as in the summer of 2013 in the Hamburg Europa Passage, or in September 2017 when passers-by struck up Stairway to Heaven in the Mainz Kirschgarten, have developed into much-clicked online events that propagate the spirit of singing together.
New formats, new media
“Choral singing as a cult – that seems to be possible again in the twenty-first century”, says a 2014 study on “amateur music” published by the German Music Council and the German Music Information Centre. Following the trend to individualization, the choral landscape is becoming more and more differentiated. Choirs are increasingly specializing in selected styles, such as jazz and gospel choirs. Of the latter, according to the study, there are already around 3,000 with 100,000 members nationwide. Other choirs focus on target groups, such as gay and lesbian choirs, which make their sexual identity an issue in their repertoire, often with a pinch of irony. Still others rely on performance and high artistic quality, like the Neubeuern Choral Community, which emerged from an Upper Bavarian choral society and has already appeared at Carnegie Hall, New York, under the conductor Enoch zu Guttenberg.
The current hit, however, is the sing-along formats. In addition to the previously mentioned choir flash mobs and pack singing, there are the so-called pub choirs, the “sing de la sing” events and the “I-don’t-sing-choirs”. In these there are no constraints of homogeneity, perfectionism and competition, as can be felt in professional or semi-professional ensembles. According to the motto “taking part is everything”, they are primarily about having fun singing and a sense of community. People can spontaneously make a date to meet, often over the internet, without binding rehearsal times and club formalities. Ideal for a fast moving, mobile society.
The Berlin pub choir in action
Singing without an audience
You sing in a sense for yourself, not for an audience. “With us it’s also about feeling ourselves sing, getting in touch with our own moods and emotions”, says Betzner-Brandt, who directs the Berlin "I-Can’t-Sing-Choir”. Here up to 100 enthusiastic singers meet to work for an evening on a small programme under his guidance. Also without scores and fixed voice groups in the form of a “giant karaoke”. Betzner-Brandt noted that even polyphonic singing in this spontaneous setting needn’t sound like cats’ concert. “Instead of the feared chaos, the sounds arrange themselves marvellously into triads and more complex chords. There really is something like a natural sense of harmony.”
At the height of the migration crisis, Betzner-Brandt founded an intercultural encounter choir on the same pattern in the capital, in which refugees, volunteers and ancestral Berliners can get to know each other better by singing together. “Singing is the actual mother tongue of humankind.” This famous sentence from the mouth of the great musician Sir Yehudi Menuhin came and comes alive here. At least for a few hours.