Friday 22 March 2019

Singing in the shower might be beneficial to your health

Don't know your 'a capella' from your 'vibrato'? Anne Cunningham on why you don't need to be pitch perfect to gain the health benefits of singing.

The average choir in Ireland nowadays has just as many under-40s as over
The average choir in Ireland nowadays has just as many under-40s as over

Anne Cunningham

We of the species known as homo sapiens, are the only creatures in the animal kingdom (apart from the birds) who have a propensity for bursting into song. And we do it far more frequently than we might realise.

We do it at football matches. We sing to our small children. We croon in the pub, given half a chance, and we strut our stuff on karaoke night. We sing around campfires. Nuns in cloistered communities sing their way through matins, and on Sundays we sing in church. We hum our way through monotonous tasks, and howl along to our favourite songs on the radio. While few of us can sing bel canto, most of us sure can belto. Singing is an integral part of our lives.

The High Hopes Choir, recently featured on the Late Late Show, and the subject of a documentary available on the RTE player, proved to be a big hit. A huge choral ensemble comprised of homeless people, ex-homeless people, volunteers from several homeless charities and staff involved in homing the homeless have joined forces under the acclaimed baton of RTE Concert Orchestra conductor David Brophy, to sing their hearts out and hopefully raise money for homeless charities.

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Watching this choir perform was compulsive TV. A very large, disparate group of individuals raised their voices in song and showed us just how good it feels to perform in a choir. David Brophy told Ryan Tubridy how proud he was of them. And, given the smiles on their faces, it was obvious that they were proud of themselves too.

Back in the 80s, many a soggy Sunday afternoon was spent by yours truly, a devoted choir groupie, in many a gloomy, freezing church hall. I'd be the youngest person there by about 50 years or so.

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Each choir would seem even older than the previous one; a vast swathe of white hair and dodgy hips, warbling tunes like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in dubious harmony, looking only too ready for the Lord, who was comin' for to carry them ho-oh-ome.

It's all different now, though. The revival of choral singing in recent years has undoubtedly been helped by TV shows such as Glee and the BAFTA award-winning BBC series The Choir, where Gareth Malone transforms a motley crew of non-singers into fine choristers. The teen movie Pitch Perfect was an enormous hit too, and not just among teenagers. It's become cool to be in a choir. Hallelujah!

The average choir in Ireland nowadays has just as many under-40s as over. And our finest national choirs consist of young hotshots in their 20s. While most of us can't match the excellence of Anuna or the National Chamber Choir, virtually all of us can sing. And virtually all of us can experience the feel-good factor of performing in a choir.

I have watched The Choral Revival first-hand, as I can still be found skulking around in choral competitions, and the change is truly remarkable. People of all ages and walks of life come together once a week for rehearsal, they make new friends, and they raise their voices together at festivals, competitions and concerts all around the country and beyond. It's become a national pastime.

There's a massive body of research out there, confirming scientifically what most of us suspect about singing. It's good for your health, mentally and physically. Last year, the results of an online survey monitored by Oxford Brooks University were published in The British Psychological Society Journal, and I quote from their report:

"It was discovered that the choir members reported significantly higher levels of wellbeing than those who sang alone or did sports in squads. In addition, the choristers were more likely to view their groups as meaningful and coherent."

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Singing in a choir is good for your heart, too. A study by the University of Gothenberg, Sweden, monitored the physical effects of choral singing. Dr Bjorn Vickhoff, who led the study, reported:

"Song is a form of regular, controlled breathing, since breathing out occurs on the song phrases and inhaling takes place between these. It gives you pretty much the same effect as yoga breathing. It helps you relax, and there are indications that it does provide a heart benefit."

They monitored students involved in choral singing, specifically singing three choral exercises - chanting, humming and singing a hymn - and recorded their heart rhythms. They found that the students' hearts actually began to beat together in a kind of synchronised fashion, linked to the fact that they were breathing in a controlled and synchronised way. They found that singing together has a dramatic effect on heart variability, which is linked to heart disease.

The same study found that, in addition to increasing our blood-oxygen levels, singing triggers our "happy" hormones, helping to lower stress levels and blood pressure.

Taking it one step further, a Cardiff University study in 2012 found that lung cancer patients who sang regularly in choirs had a far greater lung expiratory capacity than those patients who didn't. Singing can, it seem, even prolong your life expectancy.

Stacy Horn reported in Time magazine, in an article called Singing Changes Your Brain, on various studies in the US, which collectively concluded that singing in a group produces raised levels of endorphins and oxycontin. Oxycontin in particular is believed to enhance feelings of trust and bonding. She wrote:

"still more studies have found that singing lessens feelings of depression and loneliness. A very recent study even attempts to make the case that 'music evolved as a tool of social living', and that the pleasure that comes from singing together is our evolutionary reward for coming together cooperatively, instead of hiding alone, every cave-dweller for him or herself."

The beauty of choral singing is that you don't need the voice of an angel. Amateur or community choirs are comprised of people who are not virtuoso soloists, but who can make a good sound as part of a greater whole. I asked John Kelly, chairman of Navan Male Voice Choir, to share his thoughts about singing in a choir.

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"I get great enjoyment out of it. I like to sing, but I know I am not a soloist," says John. "So there is safety or comfort or whatever, being just one voice in many."

Has being in a choir enhanced his social life, I ask?

"There is a very good social life attached to the choir. I've met many new friends because I joined, and I'd say these are long-term friendships. Our trips, be it to Paris or Kiltimagh, are always good fun. And the sing-songs in the pub are so much better when you are with people who actually can sing!"

Does he find singing helps with stress levels?

"I'd say yes", John replied. "Hobbies are important, and choral singing is a great hobby for me".

From Kiltimagh to Paris is quite an itinerary. Choirs, like all large groups, get great deals on flights and accommodation. Many of the amateur choirs in Ireland travel abroad to perform or to compete. Join a choir, see the world, eh?

It seems that being involved in a choir meets with a chorus (if you'll excuse the pun) of approval. Most amateur choristers do not read music fluently, but CDs of their individual lines enables choir members to put in some extra practice at home, or while driving, or indeed anywhere.

Many choirs charge membership fees, as choral directors need to be paid, but choir membership is particularly low-cost when compared with gym membership fees, or those of a tennis or golf club. Most choirs organise fundraisers for their costs, such as choir uniforms and rental of rehearsal premises. And performing in the fundraisers is usually great fun.

The winter is upon us, and the nights can be long and miserable. But there's a choir - or several - rehearsing somewhere near you. Try googling "choir" or "choral society" in your nearest town. Why not give your lungs, your heart and your problems a break and join one?

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