The Power of a Song

Editor’s Note: This story and video were prepared prior to the fire that damaged Moody Music Building on April 19. We continued with publication because we are reminded—perhaps now more than ever—of the power of music.

Dr. Paul Houghtaling and his opera students know the power of a song. They’ve watched music move people to joyous laughter and silent tears, and had their own lives impacted by a melody sung for them. So when the coronavirus outbreak cancelled performances, they decided to move from packed-out concert halls to virtual audiences, and serenade those most heavily impacted by social-distancing measures.

Over the past few weeks, Houghtaling and his students have used video conferencing and phone calls to sing to the elderly and others who may be isolating alone. The songs range from favorite hymns to Happy Birthday, each interaction unique and tailored to the person on the receiving end. For Houghtaling, this is a way for him to use his talent to make the world a more joyous place.

“It’s a great feeling to put a smile on someone’s face,” Houghtaling said. “I feel lucky to be constantly reminded of the power of music, and help to make somebody feel a little less lonely, to calm anxieties that people might have during these times.”

The project started when Houghtaling called a few friends to check up on them, which, he says, always ended in a song. He decided that a short tune could be beneficial for people feeling down, and asked the University’s Opera Guild, and then the entire opera program’s mailing list, if they knew of anyone who might need a little surprise.

This wasn’t something Houghtaling could tackle on his own, so he asked his students if they would be interested in helping him out—a question that was immediately met with a resounding yes. Since then, he has assigned students to certain calls based on their range and repertoire.

The unique situation of coronavirus has also allowed Houghtaling to teach his students that they don’t have to receive massive applause from a concert hall to know that their skills have impacted people. Through tools like Zoom, they have been able to interact more directly with the people being sung to, and maybe even have a conversation afterwards.

“Music is a constant, and we don’t have to be in person to share our art,” Houghtaling said. “We don’t have to be in the same room. We can do it by Zoom or over the phone. It’s a really special way to do it.”

Above all, Houghtaling says that being able to share this has been a great reminder not only to his students, but to himself, that music is a crucial part of the human experience. Even when times are uncertain, he is able to bring a bit of joy into someone’s life with song.

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity to share with my students, and an opportunity for them to be continually reminded of the power and importance of what we do,” Houghtaling said. “Our skills will always matter, in high times and low times, in good times and bad times. It’s been reassuring.”