I’ve always loved singing. One of my earliest memories is being at playgroup in the village hall, sitting on the parquet floor and singing happily along to nursery rhymes. And in recent years, singing has become one of my tools in the slow move toward recovery. I mention it a lot on Twitter and people often ask me to say more, so I thought it was time to spell out exactly why I think singing is so helpful.
- Singing is a physical activity. If you want to sing loud enough to be heard by others, you have no choice but to engage your lungs, vocal chords and core muscles. Sometimes I end a rehearsal feeling like I’ve had a real abdominal workout so it’s no wonder that singing releases endorphins, those magic chemicals which reduce emotional and physical pain and promote a sense of well-being.
- It makes you take big, deep breaths that you have to let out slowly – the exact opposite of the shallow, fast panicky breathing most of us experience when we are anxious.
- Singing can be hard mental work too. If you are trying to learn a tricky new piece, maybe sight reading for those who read music, or trying to sing in another language (I’ve sung in Portuguese, Italian, French, Spanish, and German as well as Latin – and I don’t speak any of them), you just don’t have spare mental space to worry. It’s like the ultimate mindfulness; no choice but to be firmly in the moment.
- It’s a social activity. Not that being in a choir allows much chance to chat because you are all there, after all, to sing. But show up regularly, and you will begin to get to know the people you sit near and you’ll probably get to know lots of others at least by sight. Knowing someone to smile at across a room is better than feeling that you don’t know anyone. Even if you went to a choir regularly and never spoke to a single other member, you would still participating in a social activity.
- No matter how insignificant you might be feeling, your presence makes a difference. If you’re singing with even one person, it’s a team activity and every member counts (this is something you shouldn’t forget about if you are looking to get back to work and need to demonstrate your team-work skills). I’ve been to a couple of choral workshops with a guy called Jeff Stewart and he’s very clear that a choir is a collection of voices, in which everyone’s voice is important. You don’t have to have the best voice, or the strongest voice, to be vital to the mix, but you do have to be there and you would be missed if you weren’t.
- Attending a choir is a structured, regular activity. It gets me out of the house and we all know that structured, regular activity is generally considered helpful in supporting recovery from mental ill health.
- Music is beautiful, and beautiful is nourishing. Singing in choirs has introduced me to some gorgeous pieces I would not otherwise have come across. Much classical music is religious, but don’t let that put you off if you’re not. For most of history, a composer of any note would have had to compose a mass or a requiem to be taken seriously, whether or not they were a believer. And even if they were and you’re not, it’s still possible to admire the beauty of the effect and the level of technical skill, just as you might when looking at an illuminated manuscript or a stained glass window.
- Choir give me a sense of mastery and achievement. Starting a piece of music from scratch, learning it along side everyone else and eventually bringing it up to performance standard means I have achieved something, something good that feels important, even if I feel like I’m not achieving much else in my life.
Inspired? That’s good news, because there’s a choir out there for anybody who fancies giving it a go.
There are huge choirs and tiny choirs. There are choirs which would never dream of singing anything other than classical music, and choirs that specialize in rock, pop, gospel, jazz or folk. There are choirs which perform regularly, and choirs that are more about getting together and having fun. There are choirs where you must pass a rigorous audition before you are allowed to sing, and others where you can show up on any night you feel like it and get stuck in. There are choirs in which everyone reads music, some where no-one does, and others where some do, and some don’t. There are choirs that rehearse on weekdays, although most meet on week nights. There are women-only choirs, men only choirs, choirs where everyone works for the same company, choirs in which everyone is gay. There are children’s choirs, youth choirs, and older people’s choirs. Fairly obviously, if you live in a big city there are likely to be more types of choir accessible to you than if you live in a provincial town or a rural area – but try searching on one of the links below. You might be surprised.
In some choirs, everyone sings the same thing at the same time; at the opposite extreme, I have sung in a choir where every person had an individualised part for some numbers. Most classical choirs are split into soprano (higher female voice), alto (lower female voice), tenor (higher male voice) and bass (lower males voice) parts, often shown on music as SATB. If you don’t know where your voice fits in, many choir directors will help you check this out first, especially in non-audition choirs. There are plenty of videos on YouTube about finding your vocal range, but the ones I’ve looked at are much more complicated than a beginner needs.
So whoever you are and whether you have any singing experience or not, why not try letting your voice help your recovery?