Sunday 16 December 2018

'People tell us we don't know what we've done' - Pair who run singing classes that boost mental health

Yvonne McDonald and Mary Lowe, who run CÓRus together.
Yvonne McDonald and Mary Lowe, who run CÓRus together.
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

“I found myself in a situation where I was in my mid-30s, and I had a flourishing career in film and TV, and I made the decision that I wanted to be a mother, that I couldn’t imagine my life without a child.”

“I decided I wanted to go to Russia to adopt a child, and at that time you could be assessed as a single adult, and you had to do a preparation course which took about a year.”

Yvonne McDonald started the fateful process of adoption of her daughter over a decade ago. During this time, she met her friend Mary Lowe O'Gorman, who would not only help to support her through the adoption process, but would also become her business partner.

“One of the couples who introduced themselves to me was Mary and Justin. We went through the preparation course together and as it happened we were both going to Russia, and we brought home our daughters within two months of each other. We bonded over the shared experience of the baby, with coffee mornings and things like that.”

“I was lecturing in film and TV in NUI Maynooth and I was developing other TV and programme ideas to pitch to RTE. Mary asked if we could work on some ideas together.”

Mary, a professional singer who backed Linda Martin at the Eurovision for “Why Me”, and Yvonne decided to start singing classes for adults.

What would make their singing classes unique, they thought, is that members didn’t have to audition, nor did they need to be able to read music.

“I myself loved singing, but couldn’t read music and would have been intimidated to audition for a formal choir. So we decided we’ve nothing to lose, let’s give it a go. Rather naively we found a venue, put out flyers, put out 20 chairs and over 40 people turned up for the first class.”

That first class took place ten years ago. Now, Yvonne and Mary have over 800 members in their CÓRus singing classes, in various locations across Dublin and Wicklow.

“We realised we’ve hit a nerve. There are no barriers – you don’t have to audition and you don’t have to read music.”

Twenty per cent of the members are men, Yvonne says.

“The men that come love it, they don’t leave. But it’s more difficult to get men to come out.”

“Women have come to class and have found they’ve bonded with other women. Some have been widowed and for example I believe 23 members are going on a spa day together in February.”

“The bonding and the camaraderie that have come out of the classes lead to something other than the classes.”

“Other people just simple come, do the class, get that uplifting little bit of fun and then they leave after the class.”

“Others do numerous classes in one week, all the social activities, the charity events… people make it what they want.”

CÓRus classes are led by trained professionals who choose an eclectic mix of songs. Improved mental health and wellbeing are a biproduct of the classes, Yvonne says.

“The songs, we say, can be anything from Doris Day to Jessie J.”

“Something we’ve grown to witness are the numbers of people approaching us and telling us we don’t know what we’ve done. A lady told me she’d had a rough time suffering from cancer and she joined CÓRus and it gave her an lift in her life.”

“It’s a mix of the health benefits that singing releases, oxytocin, the cuddle hormone, the endorphins. Singing can be similar to a yoga class in terms of the benefits of your breathing and if you sing with groups of people, breathing in harmony, that leads to physiological sense of bonding.”

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