I’m with the choir: the group therapy of singing in unison
Group singing releases endorphins, helps with bonding and (perhaps) heightens sexual attractiveness. An upcoming world record attempt in Dublin with more than 500 choirs should be quite a day, then
The Soulful in The Sugar Club, Dublin. Photograph: Dylan Madden
Lisa Hannigan: ‘It’s going to be incredible to hear this many voices together’
Singing in unison has a kind of magic that connects us all. You can’t be mad at a choir.
One of the biggest advocates of choirs is longtime chorister Brian Eno. The man who is famous for ambient music and his work with Roxy Music, Talking Heads, U2, David Bowie and Coldplay regularly hosts choir practice at his home in London.
A few years ago, he wrote an essay extolling the virtues of singing in unison. “I believe that singing is the key to long life, a good figure, a stable temperament, increased intelligence, new friends, super self-confidence, heightened sexual attractiveness and a better sense of humour. There are psychological benefits, too: singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness.”
Eno believes that singing in a group helps people develop a greater sense of empathy. “That’s one of the great feelings – to stop being ‘me’ for a little while and to become ‘us’.”
On December 19th, a world record attempt, Stars, Choirs and Carols, will bring more than 500 choirs together in Croke Park in an effort to become the world’s largest gathering of Christmas carol singing. The record attempt is in aid of Cliona’s Foundation, an Irish charity giving financial assistance to parents of critically ill children.
But what is it that makes singing in unison so powerful?
Lisa Hannigan, who will take part at the Croke Park event, says singing with a group allows people to “melt away into the collective sound and to be part of something bigger. It’s going to be incredible to hear this many voices together.”
“Each individual matters,” says Róisín Savage, one of the choir masters taking part in the record attempt. “It’s like a team. You can’t have a prima donna. That lone striker can’t score the goals themselves, you need support.”
Savage runs two choirs, The Line-Up and The Soulful. She details the large amount of work that goes into making a choir sound sweet, work that is just as much about the individual relaxing as is it about achieving harmony.
“When you go to rehearsals, you forget about your worries, whatever happened that day. You might have left a stressful day job or a stressful situation at home, and you just focus on singing and have a couple of hours for yourself,” says Savage. “You’re not just singing on your own, you’re sharing that experience. You’re all working towards the same goal.”
Reaping the rewards
A recent article in Time magazine by Stacy Horn, author of Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others, referenced scientific studies examining the physical and mental benefits of singing: the release of endorphins, the release of the hormone oxytocin, which is linked to reducing stress and enhancing feelings of bonding, group singing being “our evolutionary reward for coming together co-operatively”.
Other benefits might have to do with the possibility of synching heart rates when groups sing together, leading to a meditative effect.
The ground work for choirs generally starts in school. Fiona Cullen is a music teacher at Loreto College in Crumlin, teaching choir practice and directing the school musicals. “I think it’s a very fundmental reason,” she says about the popularity of singing from a young age.
“I think the physicality of singing and using your body as an instrument is a very liberating thing,” she says. “It’s such a natural thing to do and it feels so natural that people are drawn to that.”
And choirs add another powerful element. “Feeling that you’re part of a collective when you sing in harmony, when you blend voices,” says Cullen, “is a way of connecting with people that you don’t have in day-to-day interactions. The feeling that you’re part of that kind of interaction with a group, it’s one that you’re part of something bigger than you.”
From an educational point of view, Cullen believes that choirs can have huge benefits for children in terms of learning, group work and a discipline some might find hard to grasp in other areas of school work,
“It’s that feeling of belonging to a group and having a sense of group achievement, but it also really helps with self-discipline,” Cullen says. “Kids who might be a bit wayward, they come in and because you get so much out of the feeling of singing, they’ll start to co-operate, be able to give that bit more, hold the line. And it improves their self-worth because they can see that end product.”
Cullen agrees with the idea that music is a holistic therapy of sorts. She sang in the Christchurch Cathedral choir for nine years before stopping, and now she sings with the outfit less regularly. “When I stopped, I found emotionally I was much more pent up than I was when I was singing. It was a way of dealing with your emotions and letting it all out. When I stopped doing that, I had to find another way, so I took up a sport.”
Voice of the community
Choirs are also useful tools for enhancing community and bringing people together. Music Matters runs an inclusive community choir in Dublin city centre, with the tagline “one community, one choir, no divides, all abilities”, and a new pilot scheme called Musical Memories has been established in south Dublin aimed at older people, especially those with dementia.
Miriam O’Callaghan will host the event at Croke Park on the 19th, with Louis Walsh, Lisa Hannigan, the Dublin Gospel Choir and the Army No 1 Band among those taking part. Irish Rail is offering a special ticket price for choirs and individuals travelling to the event.
For more information on how to join in, including details on how to volunteer and order fundraising material visit starschoirsandcarols.ie . You don’t have to be part of a choir to take part in the event, but you do need to register via the website