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Can you enjoy going on a Cathedral residency and singing church music when you’re not religious?

I’m not a practising Christian and some of my friends have voiced surprise that I enjoy going on a Cathedral residency quite so much. They ask me why I like it, seeing as it’s really going to church five times in a weekend. In a recent BBC4 programme about different Requiems, they posed the question: do you have to believe in God to enjoy a piece like Mozart’s Requiem? and maybe my friends really ask me the same question. I’ll try to explain why I think you don’t have to be religious to get a lot out of going on a cathedral residency.

Music often talks to very fundamental human emotions. I don’t have to be in love to enjoy a love song and similarly I can be happy but still appreciate the cathartic power of singing along loudly to a break-up song. In our most recent residency in Chichester, we sang Howell’s Te Deum. One of the lines is: ‘Oh Lord, in Thee have I trusted. Let me never be confounded.’ Howell’s music makes these words a deeply moving plea: 'I trust you, please don’t let me down'. This is another of those universal human emotions: placing your trust in something or someone and praying that you’re not going to be proven wrong. Especially with Howell’s background: his only son died at a young age; you can feel an almost desperate hope in every chord. You do not have to be religious to be moved by it.

Singing forces you to be in the moment. You sing and the sound is there. You close your mouth and it stops. It’s the ultimate in mindfulness, being aware of the sound you make. Only at the end of a piece can you stop singing and still hear it, as the Cathedral carries the final chord. The acoustic supports your voice so that it goes from the choir stalls all the way through the building. It’s one of those magical moments, when you realise that this was the sound that we’d been making together.

For four days, this is really all we do: we try to make a beautiful sound. Together. You eat, sleep and sing. You’re in a cocoon of music. All the outside worries are far away as the immediate worries – am I in tune, will I get the next entry right, have I got all my music with me – are at the forefront of your mind. It’s very satisfying to spend four days worrying about things that you can actually control! The other satisfying thing is that you are with a group of people who are all trying to solve these things. Singing in a choir is a team effort. There are no prizes for singing the loudest, or singing the best. Unless everybody gets it right, it’s wrong. Apart from making music, I can’t think of many other activities where there is no competition involved.

Then finally, the place where you sing is a place where people have been making music and singing on probably a daily basis for centuries. You feel the connection with history. Chichester Cathedral was consecrated in 1108. We sang Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices which was written in 1592. So, we sang music that people first sang over 400 years ago, in a place where people have been singing for more than 900 years. That link to the past is very powerful and when you stand in the choir stalls of the Cathedral, you can’t help but think of people who stood there and sang centuries before you.

At the end of the weekend, you’re both exhausted and mentally refreshed. That might sound like a total contradiction but it’s probably the one weekend a year where I think of nothing other than music. Sure, you have to concentrate hard and work hard, but it’s also a holiday for your brain from all the other worries for just those few days.

And you don’t have to be religious to need that – or to benefit from it.

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