'It's the ultimate stress-buster': how choir singing can boost your mental health
Singing in a choir has physical and mental benefits, as well as bringing communities together, experts tell Ailin Quinlan
Last September, choir manager Germaine Carlos had a major heart operation during which her chest had to be sawn open and her sternum broken. The objective: to replace her aortic valve.
The 63-year-old, who manages Dublin’s famous Palestrina boys’ choir, was told by doctors that it could take up to six months to fully recover from the gruelling surgery.
But within a mere seven weeks, Germaine was back to normal, something she attributes to the years of choral singing which left her lungs extremely strong and well developed, and to her own positive outlook on life; she is well aware, she declares, not just of the physical, but of the mental health benefits of choral singing.
“There were a number of contributing factors to my recovery, but one of the biggest was my years in the choir — of choral singing. They told me that it could take three to six months, but I think it was my positive outlook and the choral singing that helped with my recovery,” says the mother of two adult daughters, adding that she regularly witnesses the mental health benefits of choral singing:
“I watch the boys coming in three times a week to practise, and while they can come in feeling grumpy and hungry, their parents say to me that they always come out very happy.
“A choir is a great place for children to make friends,” adds Carlos, adding that there are many positive aspects to choir membership for youngsters.
They learn to lead and to help one other, she says, adding that “it keeps them off the screens!”
Carlos’ cardiologist, Professor Declan Sugrue is also a big fan of choirs — his four sons were all head choristers with the Palestrina Choir — and he strongly believes that participating in a choir is “good for the lungs and good for the head”.
“It’s good for the mind, the spirit, the mood and the social element of life. It’s a stress-buster!” he says.
Even 10 or 20 years ago, any talk of choirs would have brought Sunday morning hymns to mind, but things have changed. There’s a growing appreciation of the mental health and social benefits of joining the local choir.
A study published by the University of Oxford in 2015 showed that singing in a choir is beneficial in a number of different ways.
Group singing, says the research, not only helps to forge strong social bonds, but it does so rapidly and can act as an excellent social ice-breaker. Researchers also found that community singing was very effective in terms of bonding large groups, something which is very important in today’s tech-obsessed and often solitary world, where many social interactions are conducted remotely through social media platforms rather than face-to-face.
This is something that Kevin O’Shanahan, a nurse specialist in mental health, the arts and recovery with the Cork Mental Health Services has noticed since he helped set up a community choir in West Cork six years ago (see panel).
In the years since the choir was established, he reported, he has noticed a range of beneficial outcomes for members, in terms of physical, psychological, emotional and social well-being.
“In an age of rapid technological advances and decreasing opportunities for social connection and interaction, something as simple as being part of a choir can literally be a lifeline for a person,” he declares.
The psychological benefits of choral singing for adults as well as children are manifold, says Dr Eddie Murphy, clinical psychologist, author and mental health advocate.
“Choir singing strengthens feelings of togetherness, helps to reduce stress levels and depression and improves one’s feeling of social well-being,” he says.
“Essentially group singing is a joyful activity that promotes wellbeing and is life-enhancing for those involved. Choir singing is all good and the psychological benefits of choir has been well established.”
Dr Murphy believes that there is a “significant role” for choirs in stressed workplaces and to enhance the wellbeing of marginalised groups; those with physical (chronic pain), mental health and intellectual disabilities.
“Choir singing presents an opportunity for meaningful activity and social connectedness. In addition, it creates personal growth through finding a voice, positive emotions and emotional regulation.
“For me community, social, church and work choirs fundamentally create harmony inside and out.”
Retired school principal Helen Burke has sung in choirs since the age of 13. Now aged 64, she says choral singing has been an important part of her life since her childhood in Ballydesmond, in the Sliabh Luachra area of North Cork.
“My first experience of choir occurred when I went to secondary school at the age of 13,” she recalls; she later joined the student choir in college, and since then had been involved in numerous choirs, both church and secular- mixed and ladies’.
“I love the happiness, the camaraderie, the creativity and the discipline which choir membership brings to my life.
“There is a sense of satisfaction and a sense of achievement.
“You’re working with a group of like-minded people who have similar interests and you can see yourself improving; it’s a learning process so it’s good for your confidence.
She adds that performing in public and learning to “control your nerves” also boosts self-confidence.
“I also found that choir singing was great for dealing with stress, because you learn how to control your breathing.”
It also keeps the brain active, she believes: “You sing better when you know the words. It’s very good for the brain to have to learn new songs because you have to concentrate on the music, the timing and the lyrics which is all very good for your cognition.”
Psychotherapist Bernadette Ryan has several acquaintances who sing in choirs, and says that for some, they can provide a sense of community and support, particularly during difficult periods:
“It seems that when some people come to a certain stage in their lives, for example, the empty nest stage, they join a choir. It gives a great sense of community to people; it’s a terrific way to bring the community together. The sense of community you can get from a choir can help reduce the sense of loneliness or isolation that may result from marriage breakdown.
“It reduces loneliness and isolation, and it’s very good for cognition because you have to learn new songs and concentrate. Research shows that singing, particularly choir singing, connects us with our ancestral roots.”
Having to work with a group also requires people to deal with challenges like conflict:
“There is a part about learning to work together for the benefit of the whole group, which is a good thing for all of us psychologically.”
*The Palestrina Choir’s annual concert will take place on Saturday, December 7 in the National Concert Hall.