Valerie McCoy joined the Wicklow Parkinson’s choir in 2022. Having suffered for a number of years with Parkinson’s disease, she says joining the choir has given her a lifeline.
“It has been a revelation to me – a weight off my shoulders. I look forward to going every Monday morning and people tell me I’m more cheerful, livelier and more interested in talking to people since I joined,” she explains.
McCoy says she didn’t consider herself a good enough singer to join a choir, yet, since she joined, her singing voice has thrived. “Don’t ask me to do a descant [a melody sung higher than the standard one] but I love it. I’m not afraid to sing around the house now too.”
Bernard Wynne is also a member of the Wicklow Parkinson’s choir, which was set up in 2014 by singer, vocal coach and choir director Dara MacMahon. “The vocal exercises are very good because Parkinson’s affects the voice,” says Wynne. “Before I went to the choir, I didn’t know anyone else with Parkinson’s but they have all made me feel very welcome.”
As community choirs across Ireland return following the summer break, the physical, psychological and social benefits of singing in a group become apparent. Orla Horn is the chair of the Forget Me Nots choir in north Dublin. “It’s a joy for everyone. People lose their sense of isolation by coming here. They can just come and sing. They don’t have to talk to people or they can discreetly chat and find ways to support each other,” says Horn.
Marianna Flood joined the Forget Me Nots choir with her husband Pat about six years ago. “Pat – who died in 2022 – was quite the musician. He played the saxophone in the St James brass and reed band for many years but he had to stop because of Parkinson’s. I didn’t know what to do after he died but when I went back to the choir, it worked very well. I’ve met new people and made new friends,” she explains. Flood, who sings alto, says that she enjoys the challenge of singing and the performances, led by musical director, Norah Walsh.
Frances Elliott first joined the Forget Me Nots choir with the husband of a friend to give her friend a break from her carer role. “It’s frightening the number of people who have dementia now but the choir is wonderful for supporting people. It’s emotional, uplifting and very friendly,” says Elliott.
Her friend’s husband has since gone into a nursing home and her friend has joined the choir. “I know how difficult it can be to look after someone with dementia 24/7 but even couples when one partner has dementia, get a break when they come to this choir,” she adds.
The Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at University of Limerick (UL) has been at the forefront of researching and promoting the health benefits of choral singing. A 2017 study, entitled Sing Yourself Better by Dr Hilary Moss and other researchers found the key benefits of singing in a choir are increased social connection, improved respiratory health, cognitive stimulation, improved mental health and transcendence from daily worries.
The academy has also reached out to the migrant community in Limerick to offer support through the Irish World Music cafe. Led by Polish-born keyboard player and singer, Ewa Zak Dyndal, this weekly gathering (Thursdays 11am-12.30pm) at the UL campus building on Sarsfield St, Limerick is an open social space where people sing or listen to songs.
“Every week, it’s different. It is open to everybody. Sometimes there are three of us singing and making music but more recently, there are about 20 people, mainly from the Ukraine,” explains Dyndal who is doing a PhD in music and the Polish diaspora in Ireland.
“We sing popular songs like Molly Malone and songs from the Beatles and then, some people sing Ukrainian songs. Music connects people because it is an international language. People are happy to share their culture away from the everyday stresses,” she adds.
Prof Helen Phelan, director of the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at UL, says that music offers another dimension to migrant communities. “Migration – especially forced migration due to trauma or conflict – creates a disruption between the past and the future. The past becomes a complex place and it’s hard to imagine a future so you end up living day to day,” explains Phelan.
However, she says that music and singing creates a connection between the past and the future by connecting memory with imagination.
“It creates a cathartic space to visit the past and when you are able to do that, you are able to imagine the future. The emotions are contained in the song and when the song is over, the emotion passes,” says Phelan.
While many people discover their local choirs through word of mouth, Sing Ireland, the national body supporting all forms of group singing, is also a good place to seek out a choir that suits you best. Its website, singireland.ie, includes an interactive map of many of the singing for health and wellbeing groups throughout the country.
The national mental health charity, Turn2Me, is encouraging people to sign up to sing in a choir this autumn. The charity is holding a fundraising concert with the Belle Harmonics Pop Rock Choir on September 29th in St Stephen’s Church (also known as the Pepper Cannister), Dublin. All funds raised with go towards Turn2Me free counselling services.
Turn2Me chief executive Fiona O’Malley says that joining a choir can bring a feeling of “inclusiveness, collegiality and pride after performing. It’s also a great opportunity to meet new people and make new friends.”