Swedish researchers have confirmed what we choir members have known for years: it’s beneficial to both mind and body
For the uninitiated, choirs may seem comfy, middle-aged and the ultimate in conformity. But there is much more going on behind that group of women harmonising on Ave Maria, their T-shirts emblazoned with crotchets and the beaming smiles. When I look at a choir I see a group of people giving themselves permission to politely scream in public – and in doing so making themselves feel amazing.
Researchers from Sweden have discovered what us in the choir business already know: that being in a choir helps you to breathe better. Some reports have concluded that choirs could very well be the new yoga. Soon our gyms will be full of people singing; Nike will bring out a Sing n Sweat app; there’ll be 10k sings (though I’ve got no idea how that would work). But could this be a serious option for anyone who loathes other forms of exercise?
It’s definitely one for your fitness toolkit, with Heart Research UK saying that singing is a “great aerobic exercise; giving both your heart and lungs a fantastic workout”, when they launched their Sing For Your Heart campaign. Another study into choirs by the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health in 2008 concluded that local authorities and the NHS need to provide more options for community singing “especially from midlife onwards” because there is so much evidence it keeps people healthier.
There are already a wealth of choirs to help rehabilitate, such as Sing For Joy – a choir for people with Parkinsons. Or the completely open project the Gathering, where anyone, musicians or otherwise, can just go along and make any noise they like. One of its founders, Maggie Nichols, told me that parents of autistic children had brought them along to a Gathering because it was a place where their noises were totally accepted. Their noise was considered peaceful, harmonious even, and their families had much needed respite from being stared at in the street or constantly apologising.
In my experience, having founded and directing the all-female choir Gaggle, the biggest and almost instant benefit from being in a choir is making you feel happier. We know that ensemble singing can help people with severe anxiety, but for people who just need a release from work, relationships and all the other things that keep you awake at night, choirs can be a lifesaver.
A choir gives you permission to make a noise. Many people are told when they are younger to be quiet, not to shout or scream, or even worse that they can’t sing. People end up holding on to so many sounds and so much energy because it would cause more trouble than it’s worth to express it. Not telling your boss he’s an idiot for not knowing how the printer works. Not screaming at a clerk when the bank fines you £50 for going £5 over your overdraft. Not telling the government how you feel about the cuts.
But the best thing about a choir, especially our choir, is that after you’ve done all this together – breathed, moved, sang, shouted – you have a group of friends who like singing like you. And if you’re still stressed after choir practice, there’s always time for a quick chat at the pub.