We are all born singing. Whether it’s a cry or a croon, the first sounds we make are pure music.

My first formal vocal training was at the hands of Mr. Robert Ingersoll, an elementary music teacher at the Fairbanks Elementary School in Sudbury, Mass. He began by teaching us to breathe. We put our hands on our bellies and felt our natural breath, as much as we could while thinking about it. When I started practicing yoga, 11 years later, I was told to “ … let your consciousness flow to the breath.”

Either way, it is difficult not to make some sort of effort when focusing on an action of one’s own body.

I have sung in school plays and open mics, choirs and choruses and  impromptu harmonies since I was six. Each time, there is a moment when my brain stops driving my consciousness and my consciousness just watches and listens, breathes and sings. There is nothing that brings me closer to joy than lifting my voice; nothing opens the gates of heaven like fitting into a good harmony.

When I moved to Maine, I discovered a well-established community of nonsecular choruses. By my late 30s, the alto range I was probably born with settled into a comfortable tenor with an occasional foray into baritone, between C3 and G4. It’s where most good ballads fit, the ones I like, and reaching for a lower pitch has always been easier for me than the vibration of a high alto or soprano.

I love it when my voice falls to a rumble that might have been written for a bass, but soon enough I run out of notes and seek the higher voice of my comfort zone. In the car, I often stick to the soloist’s line, but it’s a habit I’m trying to change. A supporting role is less terrifying, when others are listening. I’m more sure of myself when surrounded by singers with whom I can harmonize.

Four-part harmony makes room for variation within the form. Sometimes there’s space in the music for more voices; sometimes the strands come together in a cable of sound that feels unbreakable and you carry it home in your head, all the voices of the people who surrounded you when your mouth was open and your consciousness was focused on the breath as it moved through your body. You felt it change into sound as your body responded, sometimes faster than thought, to the changing music around you.

Like breathing, singing with others is a true act of communion, where one gives and another receives, and that other one gives and the giving and getting are all in the same smooth action, the same shared awareness.

Mimi Bornstein got the idea of listening as a vital part of choral singing, deep into my understanding. Sometimes the only way to find your tone is to feel its space in the silence between other sounds.

A few years ago, I went with a bunch of local singers to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, to be part of a 400-voice chorus for the Missa Gaia. We had an afternoon call and the friends I stayed with decided we should spend the morning at The Cloisters, a museum of the art of the Middle Ages, much of which is religious in inspiration.

We wandered together  at first but it’s a place built for quiet contemplation, so after a while we headed off in different directions.

My ear found it first, a blending of voices, a medieval chant that flowed out of an arched doorway. Inside was  a medium-sized chapel and in the middle of the space, arranged in a U-shape that opened to where I stood, there were 16 loudspeakers, each about three feet from its neighbors and set a little above head height.

There were a few folks milling around the room. A pair standing just inside the U seemed to be listening most attentively. Wanting to get closer, but not wishing to invade their soundscape, I walked to the leftmost speaker. It was one voice, pitched very low and not totally perfect. As I slowly stepped to the right I heard two voices, and then four, blending the quiet coughs, hesitant entries, and fudged notes into a bass section, one that melted into the next four speakers of the tenor range and so on, until I was standing in the spot vacated by that pair of listeners, hearing the full and perfect beauty of that chant.

Of all the things that have fallen away in the past year and a half, I miss the singing most. As we look to another COVID-19 winter, and the return to choral singing remains a distant hope, I’d like to find a handful of singers to share that communion with me. In the winter of 2020, I found myself part of the pod that was already there. This time around, I think it would be good to form my circle with greater intention, to find and feed my companions with the blending of chords.

With most newborn humans the first cry or croon neither follows, nor precedes, the first breath. It is simply the music we make before we know we are making it.

Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992, and is published here on a bi-weekly basis.