The benefits of singing in a choir
Head of Music Mairéad Sheerin on the benefits of singing in a choir
I am a singer. At parties, when people ask what I do they almost always reply ‘wow – you are so lucky, that must be amazing!’ closely followed by how they only sing in the shower or in the car along with the radio. Most say they’d love my job. Now, I won’t be coy – I know I’m lucky enough to have been born with a physical set-up that means I have a voice people like to listen to. I also know that, just as importantly, I have a personality that means I have to communicate – I have to tell stories. Singing to me is like oxygen. When I’m low or tired it lifts me up, when I am in pain, it seems to knit me together – I sang and hummed through giving birth three times.
But that’s me - I am a professional singer. What intrigues me is: “Why do people who have other accomplishments want to sing?” They can’t all be show-offs. The primary function of the larynx (voice box) isn’t even to make noise, so why are people hungry to sing? I decided to look into it.
The science behind the benefits of singing in a choir
We know that music promotes well-being - it has the power to move, to relax, to energise, to console but singing is particularly beneficial for improving breathing, posture and muscle tension – some of my work in the past has been with those suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and I witnessed their improvement physically and mentally. When we sing, the neurochemical β-endorphin, a natural painkiller responsible for the ‘high’ experienced after intense exercise, is released. This, alongside dopamine and serotonin, leads directly to an improved mood. The stress hormone, cortisol, is reduced and the Immunoglobin A antibody is boosted – these factors lead to sustaining a healthy immune system.
Just a bit more science – learning new songs is cognitively stimulating and helps the memory so can help those suffering dementia too.
The social benefits
So what about those who were told to mime in the school choir or not allowed to join at all? I hear this story most weeks, honestly, and it breaks my heart! To me, this is the antithesis of what a choir should be. Singing with others means there’s no spotlight on you and guess what happens when you feel less inhibited because you’re blending with others? You improve!
There is more and more evidence suggesting that our social connections can play a role in maintaining our health. That doesn’t mean you have to talk to everyone in your choir, just the general feeling of being connected with the group gives the participant a lift.
Now, all of this ‘science bit’ is what I found out from Oxford University’s research into the benefits of choral singing but in a way, I knew it already from personal experience. I have run a number of choirs and singing groups and I see what it does week in week out. I ran a choir for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts and this will sound dramatic, but I know it saved lives. The health and social benefits mentioned above, the endorphins, sense of purpose and belonging can make a huge impact in people’s lives.
I see it happening every week. I run various choirs and singing groups. In the singing group for mothers and little ones, I see how it stimulates the children and bonds mothers of all different nationalities and backgrounds. The choir I run made up of parents with high stress jobs? They move heaven and earth to make sure they come and sing for that one hour a week. The retired people from the Morden College choir - the oldest member is 102 – are so grateful for being able to let it all out. I also run a young people choir, several of whom have special needs – singing is a great leveller.
This is why I was passionate about the Conservatoire launching a new mixed choir. It is for whoever is free for an hour on Fridays at 11am. It is for those who have sung before and read music, it is for those who have never dared make a noise to anyone but themselves. It is for all ages, all backgrounds, all nationalities. It is for everyone who wants to be elevated from the everyday.
The new choir leader - Jenny Hughes
I asked Jenny to come in for a chat when she emailed me to say that she was recently retired, had moved back to Blackheath and had a few ideas about running a singing ensembles at the Conservatoire. Within five minutes of meeting her, I asked her to wait for a moment. I left the room to interrupt whatever our Principal, John Keeley, was doing (sorry John!) and asked him to join us. I knew he’d be impressed by her music education experience – Jenny has sat at the back of classrooms to advise teachers in schools how to teach music, she has taught at Leeds University, was Head of Music at what is now the University of Worcester and is currently running a choir in Belmarsh Prison.
I knew that John would see what I saw – yes, Jenny was extremely accomplished but, more importantly, she was energetic and kind – whether she was dealing with experienced or novice musicians, they would be in good hands. We decided right there and then that she would lead our new choir, Friday Voices. We are lucky to have her!
For more on the benefits of choral singing, tune into Radio 4’s Front Row on Christmas Day produced by my good friend Rebecca Armstrong (who also happens to be in one of my choirs, Cats Chorus!). Click here to hear it!