John Bell is famous as a Scottish composer of modern-day hymns for worship and as a BBC radio commentator. He is also in demand as a leader of spiritual retreats and community music-making. On February 10th at First Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, he'll lead a free, public "Big Sing,” co-sponsored by the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music.
The Transformations Spirituality Center is also offering a three-day spiritual retreat with John Bell. A musical person from a young age, Bell was nevertheless told he had a lousy voice for singing. It didn't help that one of his siblings sang so well he became an opera singer.
"I had to overcome a kind of great complex I had with my voice, and realize that I hadn't been given a voice which was meant to sooth millions, but I was given a voice which was to enable other people," Bell says. "And so when I began to work in the area of public music, of congregational song - getting people to sing - I just decided I'd go for it. And because I don't make records, I don't make CDs, I'm not a performer, it means that you're free to use your voice in such a way as it enables other people - no matter how bad they think they are - to think they can do better. Sometimes my voice will crack or break, and people will think, 'Poor soul. We'll need to give him a hand,' and then they join in."
Cara Lieurance: I like how you sing your songs. I think it's more strange when folk songs become too proper in the voice of someone who's too well trained.
John Bell: That's right, it's a different thing entirely. And it's partly because the trained voice is best heard when it's articulating a melody which was written for someone who's a performer. And when it comes to a folk melody, then sometimes it's very difficult for trained singers to feel comfortable. You know they want to ornament or they want to put in too much expression. And folk songs - in a way the hymns of the church are folk songs - for their best representation don't have to have all the breathing and the skillfulness of vocal production which would be necessary for an aria or a recitative if you were in an opera or singing an oratorio.
Cara Lieurance: It's called a "Big Sing," this event you're leading on February 10th. What should people expect and be prepared to do?
John Bell: Oh, they should... prepare not to worry. And prepare not to feel that I'm going to embarrass them. Sometimes people think, this weird guy will come with an accent that is unintelligible, and ask people to do hand movements and soak them with perspiration. No, no, I never ask people to do that which they can't. And what they will experience is a whole range of different kinds of music. They'll experience singing without music - there's music there, but I'm concerned that everyone feels that they can sing, and so I teach quite a lot of songs from other cultures, in two- or three- or four-part harmony, and people manage it without any difficulty at all. And people will not be separated into also, soprano, tenor or bass. Everything that we sing is accessible to all voices. And I'll just take a section of the community at any one time and ask them to sing a particular line, and another section will do another line.
With his Scottish upbringing, and membership in the Iona Community - which continues to maintain an ancient abbey on the island of Iona - John Bell says, if anything, a Celtic perspective helps him learn from other cultures and welcome strangers.
It was a tradition which was aware of the rest of the world. And so one of the things that my colleagues and I are very keen to do is not to say all the best songs come from Scotland, or from Great Britain, but that we should, as part of a witness to this ancient Celtic tradition, is represent, sing, and engage with music from other cultures. You know, people are able to trace now that some of the artwork from the Celtic period found its roots in Egypt. We know that some of the missionaries went probably as far as Russia. We know that in Iona, which is the island where St. Columba evangelized Scotland, that on that island people came from Norway, and traders came from the Mediterranean, that they had access to lapis lazuli rock from Afghanistan. So one of the great gifts of this, which is very seldom known, is that it's not an insular notion of how people behave or believe, but it's actually something which connect with the rest of the world.