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Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Sing-Alonger

Sometimes new insights come about because two experiences collide.

Experience 1.

I was reading an essay about André Hazes. André Hazes, for the non-Dutch amongst us, is - was - a phenomenon. He sang the 'levenslied', the Dutch schlager as it were, and became the larger-than-life representation of it. When he died, there was a burial ceremony in the Amsterdam Arena (you know, Ajax) which was televised and attracted six million viewers.

The essay is written by an anthropologist from the Meertens Institute for Dutch ethnology, Irene Stengs. I like the essay; at points it is too much sociology of culture and too little ethnography to my taste, but it makes an important distinction that I had not consciously thought about too much: that between singing culture and sing-along culture. Singing culture is about the way we sing songs. Sing-along culture is about the way we sing songs together with a singer. In a sense, sing-along culture unites what ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino would call presentational and participatory forms of singing. Singing is presentational when it is done by a singer for an audience. Singing is participatory when everybody joins in and there is no distinction between a singer and an audience, Sing-along means there is a distinction, but not between the singer and his audience but between the singer and the sing-alongers.

Experience 2.
Some days later I was sitting in the school of my children, watching the 'week opening ceremony'. A class of six-year old kids were supposed to sing a song. Someone, therefore (!), started a tape, with which the children could sing along. I was listening to the singing and tried to figure out how well the kids sang by substracting the recording from the singing.

And suddenly I collided with Irene Stengs. And I thought: maybe I should look at it - listen to it - differently. In our days, filled with mechanically reproduced music from dusk to dawn, in our days in which music is seen as a 'profession' rather than an everyday activity (either you are talented up to the level of professionalism or you shut up) we have become sing-alongers rather than singers. In the old times, our great-grandparents had to sing themselves if they wanted to hear a song. So they did. Now, we put on the radio, the computer, the telly, the cellphone. And we sing along with he professional.

If that is the case, if the majority of our singing experience is a singing-along experience, then maybe the point of learning to sing at school today is learning to sing along. No need to see the recording as something second best, which teachers use because they can't play the guitar or sing anymore themselves. On the contrary: singing along to a recording is the point. Maybe the guitar comes in in the preparatory phase, because with a live guitar accompaniment you can give children the idea - by being flexible in tempo, for example - that they sing-along really well although in reality the singing-along is still a bit clumsy. But eventually, the real thing, the thing to go for, the thing to be assessed, evaluated and measured, is the quality of the singing-along.

I know you have doubts about this. It feels uncomfortable. I feel uncomfortable. But I ask you to seriously question yourself. May the reason that we feel so uncomfortable with it not be that singing-along is something which is 'not done' in higher class, in Real Culture? Irene Stengs shows with a perfect example how this works. A musical was written about the life of Hazes. The musical was a hit in the theatres, and was highly acclaimed by the official, the formalized world of culture, the same world that would never seriously consider Hazes as anything even near a real Artist. National newspapers handed out four- and five star ratings. But they did that to a musical which did its utmost to detach itself from the sing-along character of Hazes. Stengs cites the makers of the musical who explicitly say that they wrote the musical in such a way that the audience at no point would be able to sing along - director Ruut Weissman is even quoted to have said: "If that happens, we have lost." So question yourself if your doubts are connected to this 'we have lost'-feeling of the world of Culture, and if so, maybe detach yourself from it for just a second or two.

A whole new rationale for music education is developing here: learning to sing along. What do you think: is it defendable, or just bullshit? Let me know.

Irene Stengs. Het fenomeen Hazes. Een venster op Nederland. Amsterdam: AUP, 2015.
Thomas Turino. Music as Social Life. The Politics of Participation. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008.


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  2. Evert, wat een goed stuk! Ik ben de representatie van de 'singing along culture' daar ik (1) uit Amsterdam kom, (2) Een groot fan ben van Andre Hazes, (3) ik geen muzikale opleiding heb maar (4) het heel plezierig vind om mee te zingen met Andre Hazes. Niet in een stadion en niet bij de musical (die inderdaad goed is) maar in de beslotenheid van mijn eigen huis, auto of nog leuker in de kroeg. Het brengt mij plezier, het verbind (als ik samen zing met vrienden), het raakt mijn gevoel en elke keer probeer ik dat ene nummer toch weer wat beter te zingen. Ik vind het dan ook zeer onplezierig wanneer er vanuit de 'kunstwereld'' wordt aangegeven dat dit geen kwaliteit zou hebben. Waarom niet? Waarom brengt deze muziek dan zoveel teweeg bij mensen, ontroerd het, raakt het mensen en zet het aan tot meezingen? Dat is toch de essentie van muziek? Iets wat muziekscholen e.d. niet lukt, lukt de Frans Bauers, Andre Hazessen (god hebbe zijn ziel) e.d wel, een publiek wat niet naar de muziekscholen komt, wel aanzetten tot meezingen. Dus is leren bij meezingen verdedigbaar, ja zeker. Met een grote uitroepteken. De vraag is alleen hoe? Hoe brengen we deze 2 werelden samen? Ik sta open voor deze discussie!