Sing out loud and proud – it will make you feel better
All of us are touched by songs and music, and singing can improve your health and mood
Sarah Crowe, Emily Doyle, Maria Doyle and Katie Stoker Phelan of the RTÉ Cór na nÓg children’s choir in Croke Park in December 2013. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Arlene Harris singing with Barefield Church Choir under the direction of Breda Loughnane with Organist Sarah Ferrigan at Barefield Church this week. Photograph: Eamon Ward
Aoife Donnelly (5) and Kay Brennan in Nowlan Park, Kilkenny. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Christmas is fast approaching, and with it comes the usual deluge of seasonal songs. Some are totally timeless and their arrival on the airwaves every December is a welcome blast of comfort. (Okay, others should have never made it out of the recording studio.)
You just can’t beat Christmas carols and the glorious sound of a choir, voices joined in unison as they take listeners through the emotional highs and lows of the soulful melodies we have all known since childhood.
I have always loved to sing, be it in the car, cooking dinner or while listening to cheesy old pop songs (much to my children’s disgust). So went out and found an outlet for my warbling – and for the past few years I have happily been a member of my local church choir.
Initially my joining had little to do with a devout nature, but I have come to enjoy the serenity of the setting and, more importantly, the camaraderie with the group, which ranges from teenagers to pensioners.
“The social aspect of singing is one that cannot be undervalued,” says Dermot O’Callaghan, chief executive of the Association of Irish Choirs, based in the University of Limerick. “When you sing in a choir, you come together and go through the singing process communally. So many choir members become lifelong friends.”
As well, he adds, “singing is a natural thing to do. Think of the happy child who is holding a hairbrush and singing wholeheartedly into it. It’s something that appeals to people of all ages and enhances their lives.”
Singing is beneficial to your vocal chords and improves health overall, O’Callaghan says. “Anecdotally, you will hear that singing is good for mental, emotional and physical health. Time and again, singers will report that a rehearsal or performance has energised them and given them an enormous feel-good factor.”
This is because the entire body is involved in singing. “Your mind needs to actively engage for various reasons: to create a good sound, to sing the correct notes, and to blend with your fellow choir members. The more you sing, the more you will realise that you will achieve better and varied results if you engage your body in different ways.”
As for the obvious direct results of singing, O’Callaghan cites “elevated mood, improved memory and increased concentration. Stress and anxiety have also been proven to be significantly reduced after singing.”
David Carey, a Dublin psychologist who has a degree in music education, says singing is a mood enhancer that we should make part of our everyday lives.
“I would encourage everyone to burst into song – make it loud, make it joyous or sad, but make sure you do it,” he says. “Singing, like all forms of music, bypasses the reasoning parts of the brain. These are the parts which cause us to over-think things, to fret or to worry.
“Sometimes it’s just good to be alive and this is a good time to sing or dance,” he says. “Sometimes life is too much for us, so sing away the sadness. But it doesn’t matter what you sing – just sing and let your brain go away on a melody of harmony and rhythm. Soon enough you will feel the better for it.”
Much research has been undertaken over the years into singing and its many benefits. The Sidney de Haan Centre for Arts and Health, based at the Canterbury Christ Church University in the UK, has studied how singing has a positive impact in many areas, including mental health, chronic lung disease, dementia and the elderly.
“This research has also shown that physical benefits include better posture, stronger stomach muscles and toned facial muscles, to name but a few,” says O’Callaghan. “And research at the University of Frankfurt points to immune system benefits as well.
He cites a report in the US Journal of Behavioral Medicine, which determined that blood samples taken from choir members, before and after they sang, found raised levels of immunoglobulin A and cortisol. (Their blood composition was unaffected when they simply listened to the same music.)
“So I would encourage everyone to sing,” he adds. “All too often, people have been told that their singing voices are ‘not good’ or they may have developed that perception themselves. But obviously, like in all activities, some are more naturally gifted than others and some will have a greater aptitude for it.
“However, there are, after all, lifelong football enthusiasts who are not very good football players.”
We are music
“Music is in us – we are music,” says Dr Carey. “We contain rhythm and vibration and pitch. The heart beats, blood flows through the veins. All of our body is a flow of music. So it is no wonder that we enjoy singing. Giving voice to your song is a way to free the mind and the spirit and release the tension of the day.
“Music and song stimulates deep brain structures involved in emotional arousal. This can be contagious. One member of a choir who feels happy or sad will stimulate the same emotional response in another choir member.”
Says O’Callaghan: “We, at the AOIC believe that everyone can and should sing. What a person hears when they sing is often different to what the rest of us hear. This is because the internal resonances of the skull mean that what you hear when you sing can be quite different, so it’s all about perception. It’s the same phenomenon as when you listen to your speaking voice when it’s recorded and you’re surprised by what you sound like.
“So, given that Christmas is fast approaching, I would encourage anyone who has any inclination to get out carolling – many choirs will have an ‘audience’ aspect to their concerts this Christmas, and so you can go along and be entertained by the hundreds of brilliant choirs in action right across Ireland. You may even be invited to sing along. If you get that opportunity, then sing out loud and proud.”
Christmas carols, in particular, touch something deep inside of us, says Dr Carey.
“Listening to carols reverberates with our conscious and unconscious memories of what Christmas is supposed to mean: family, friends, joy and reverence for the unknown mystery of life itself,” he says. “Our collective social memory helps us experience over and over the joy of a Christmas carol.
“So this year, join a choir or sing with friends. Everyone has a song in their heart. Release it loud. Sing in the shower, Sing in the living room. Just keep singing, and you will bring joy into your heart.”
Feelings of elation
The very act of choral and carol singing brings people of all ages, colour and creed together through a common bond of singing a song well. It does, indeed, bring about feelings of elation.
On occasion, I have had difficulty getting through a song due to an overwhelming feeling of mirth – the tiniest blip can have me (and other singers who shall remain nameless) clutching my sides as I try not to disgrace myself by acting like a giddy schoolgirl.
Equally, though, we all have moments of utter despair, when the mere opening line of a song unleashes a poignant memory. There is a great feeling of unity and support – no one bats an eyelid when one of us silently wipes away tears. Instead, they offer a reassuring glance, a tissue or a pat on the back, which is enough to get you through to the next verse.
Recently our choir tragically lost one of its members. She was bubbly, fun, full of life and far too young to die. While singing for her funeral was incredibly sad, we, as a group, were united in grief and did our best to do her proud with a collection of hymns that covered all the things we couldn’t put into words.
Every Christmas she played a big role in our carol service, not only joining in all the songs, but afterwards donning an elf suit to help Santa deliver sweets to all the children who help make the service magical with their own tear-jerking repertoire of festive songs.
This year the event will be missing one of its most vital and vibrant personalities. Her absence will be sadly felt, but we will put all our efforts into singing loud and proud and remembering her in the best way we can, with all the heartfelt emotion which goes hand in hand with singing.
Sadly, life can be too short, so it is important to try and do things that make you feel good. And singing will always make you feel better; it’s easy to do and it’s free. So this December, just get out there, join a choir, tag on to a carol service and raise your voice to the stars – it really will make for a happier Christmas.
Choral singing is open to all. There are thousands of people right across the country involved in choirs and singing groups. You don’t need an instrument to join – you are bringing that with you.
There are so many choirs in Ireland that you won’t have to go far to find one. The Association of Irish Choirs has a listing of member choirs at aoic.ie. There is a Find a Choir link – follow that and you will certainly find a local choir. There are also choirs that are not listed there, so don’t hesitate to contact the association if you need help.