Singing their hearts out

 

Choral singing is good for your physical and mental health – it lifts the spirits, warms the heart and fills the lungs with air, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON

ANYONE WHO sings in a choir will already know that choral singing lifts your mood, clears your head and gives you a warm sense of involvement with other people.

As school, church and community choirs take to the streets in the days before Christmas, professionals and voluntary groups are beginning to tap into the amazing mental and physical health benefits of singing.

Mental Health Ireland is one such group which in the past two years has teamed up with the Association of Irish Choirs to organise informal and formal concerts and singing sessions in churches, community centres, concert halls, theatres and workplaces.

“It all started when we saw how people who never sang before were joining in a choral event, run jointly between the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow. We then approached the Irish Association of Choirs and it took off,” explains Ted Tierney from Mental Health Ireland.

“We have organised events around World Mental Health Day in October for the last two years and this has spawned carol singing groups and plenty of interactions between choral associations and mental health associations throughout the country,” he explains.

The association’s next project is to set up a choir specifically for people who have had mental health problems.

Liz Powell, the chief executive officer of the Association of Irish Choirs, says the initiative has been a great success.

“Anyone involved in choral singing knows it’s good for you. If you go into a rehearsal feeling low, you’ll come out feeling better. You can’t think about other things when you are singing. Singing tones your diaphragm, it releases mood-lifting endorphins and gives you an adrenaline rush,” she explains.

Music therapist Bill Ahessy has studied the benefits of choral singing on a group of older adults at a residential and day unit in Dublin city centre.

The study, which was presented at the National Nursing Conference in Croke Park last month, found that choral singing reduced depressive symptoms and improved the quality of life of the participants.

“When asked how singing affects their health, over 60 per cent of participants felt it improved their mood, while almost 40 per cent thought it affected them physically either improving breath control and/or speech in some way. Others said they felt more relaxed, less lonely, stressed and isolated,” explains Ahessy.

Many of those who initially joined the choir continue to sing at weekly sessions in the Meath Community Unit (former Meath Hospital), Dublin 8.

In his research paper, Ahessy points out that depression affects one in two nursing home residents. Depression in older people often goes untreated as it is masked by physical illness, chronic pain or dementia.

One long-term study of older people’s involvement in a choir found that choral singing resulted in an improvement of health and reduction in medication over a year. Other research found that participating in a choir provides opportunities for learning a new skill that people can achieve at their own pace, without pressure.

Another music therapist, Jim Cosgrove, says that everyone – including those with special needs and those in health settings – should have access to music and singing. “It’s a health-sustaining activity,” he says. He points out, however, that choral singing operates in a different “zone” to music therapy per se.

“The primary focus of music therapy is to access the emotional, expressive aspects of music in an improvised, spontaneous therapeutic relationship whereas choral singing fits more into the community music domain with its emphasis on structured learning and public performance.”

Hilary Moss is a music therapist and arts officer at the Adelaide and Meath and National Children’s Hospital in Tallaght. Singing sessions are a regular feature in the age-related and psychiatry units there.

“We have professional traditional musicians who play and sing on a voluntary basis every week. There is a great social benefit to singing together for the patients and it gives them an opportunity to chat about memories. Songs are a great way of validating memories,” says Moss.

What people who took up choral singing at the day and residential centre for older people in the Meath Community Unit, Dublin, say:

“I feel like singing the whole way home.”

“It’s a great hour. I forget my worries and troubles.”

“I feel relaxed. I feel very happy. I get so much pleasure from it and I always come out in a good humour. It lifts your spirits for the whole day.”

“I feel happy. I feel part of the community.”