Wednesday 20 June 2018

Once more... with healing

Singing in her local choir helped Arlene Harris deal with losing her father, so a nationwide drive to get more people involved is music to her ears

On song: Arlene Harris (front right) singing with Barefield Church Choir. Photo: Eamon Ward
On song: Arlene Harris (front right) singing with Barefield Church Choir. Photo: Eamon Ward

Arlene Harris

Since I was a child, I have always loved to sing - whether it was into a tape recorder in my bedroom with friends, on the stage in my Dad's bar with our pet dog as the only audience member or in the more traditional environment of a singing class in school.

I was fortunate enough to grow up amongst musicians and singers as my parents owned the Merriman Tavern in Scariff, Co Clare, which played host to some of the best known singers in the country - from Enya and Clannad to Christy Moore, The Fureys, Mary Coughlan and countless others.

My Dad had a great voice and was never happier than when he had a bodhran in hand and could join in with a session around the dying embers of the fire after the audiences had long gone home and the musicians were winding down after a rousing performance.

Supposedly fast asleep in bed, my older brother and I would creep downstairs to watch transfixed as the private concerts continued long into the wee hours - I don't think my mother ever realised why we were always so tired on weekends.

But despite my love of singing, as I grew up, the childhood self-belief dissipated and I became more self-conscious about warbling in public.

Sure, I could belt out the entire repertoire from Les Miserables while cleaning the kitchen, but as soon as someone arrived on the scene, I would quickly clam up.

So a few years ago when a friend told me she had joined the local church choir and asked if I was interested in tagging along, I decided to give it a go.

I wasn't the most religious church goer because after spending my early teenage years in a convent boarding school, I believed I had sat through enough masses to last a lifetime. But I figured joining the choir might be a good way for me to come out of the singing closet and raise my voice loud and proud.

And what a great move it was.

The eclectic group is made up of men and women of all ages - ranging from mid-teens to mid-70s and beyond. Sometimes we are even joined by the children of various members who occasionally sing a few notes but mostly just enjoy being part of the buzz.

As a nation, we are renowned for our love of singing and throughout October, The Association of Irish Choirs (AOIC) is running the 'Sing Ireland' campaign in a bid to promote singing of every genre. There are currently up to 800 choirs in operation around the country and research from the European Choral Association says around 250,000 people in Ireland are active singers.

Dermot O'Callaghan, CEO of the AOIC, says singing is something which comes naturally to us as a people. "We know that singing is a big part of many Irish people's lives and it is life enhancing," he says. "There are enormous numbers of Irish people involved in singing throughout the island and during October, we will celebrate that and hopefully create more awareness of the value it plays in society.

"It is also a call to action to the public to get involved in singing and to encourage those who may not have tried it out previously to get involved because it is a joyful activity that has numerous and quantifiable positive effects on a person's health and well-being."

For those who have never been part of a singing group, it must be difficult to understand how mood-enhancing it can be.

But there have been times when the last thing I wanted to do was to leave the comfort of my home on a cold and wet evening to attend choir practice in what is often a very chilly church.

However, whether I have a headache, am stressed after a busy working day or simply feel too cold and tired to leave the fireside, an hour of practice never fails to make me feel better - and regardless of how I felt beforehand, I always leave feeling physically and mentally better.

Singing always evokes emotion and there are days when my childhood giggles take over and I, along with a certain partner in crime, am overcome with laughter and sit silently shaking while unable to sing a note. On other occasions the opposite is true and one of us will experience an all-consuming grief as the words or melody of a hymn evoke memories which cause a dam of tears to erupt.

My Dad passed away suddenly in 2015 after a short illness and while he was sick, I had given up the choir completely as I simply couldn't face the thought of singing - it seemed far too jovial and upbeat for the sombre mood which and consumed me.

After his death, I still couldn't bring myself to attend practice, but when, just over a month later, a member lost their lifelong spouse, I went along with my fellow singers to pay our respects through song at the funeral. Needless to say, there wasn't a dry eye in the group and the feeling of camaraderie which arose from everyone coming together on that sad occasion, gave me the motivation I needed to get back on track.

And I'm glad that I did because not only does singing have a positive effect on my mood, but it also offers physical benefits.

"Time and again, singers report that a rehearsal or performance has energised them and given them an enormous feel-good factor," says O'Callaghan.

"This is because your entire body is involved - your mind needs to actively engage to create a good sound, to sing the correct notes and to blend with your fellow choir members.

"The more you sing, the more you will realise that you will achieve better and varied results if you engage your body in different ways. Some of the obvious direct results of singing are elevated mood, improved memory and increased concentration. Stress and anxiety have also been proven to be significantly reduced after singing."

Richard Deane of Gloria, Dublin's lesbian and gay choir, agrees and says singing always makes him feel positive.

"I joined the Gloria nine years ago as I loved the sense of fun, camaraderie, the message they transmitted through music and their sense of community," he says. "And I just love singing so it was the perfect balance.

"We are currently practicing for our Christmas concert on December 15 in St Patrick's Cathedral and the sheer exhilaration of singing a challenging or lively piece is really amazing and I am often buzzing when I get home."

Psychologist Dr David Carey, who has a degree in music education, says singing is definitely a mood enhancer so we should aim to make it a part of our everyday lives.

"I would encourage everyone to burst into song - make it loud, joyous or sad, but make sure you do it," he says. "Singing, like all forms of music, bypasses the reasoning parts of the brain which are the parts which cause us to overthink things, fret or to worry.

"Sometimes it's just good to be alive and this is a good time to sing or dance. Sometimes life is too much for us, so sing away the sadness. But it doesn't matter what you sing, just sing and let your brain go away on a melody of harmony and rhythm. Soon enough, you will feel the better for it."

And with the Christmas season just around the corner, nothing could be more uplifting than carol singing. So dust off your vocal chords, leave your inhibition in the corner and just start singing - you will thank me for it.

Irish Independent

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