“Circle your shoulders … shake out your whole body … move your mouth as if you’re chewing a toffee …”
It’s my first session with my local community choir but we’ve spent the past five minutes doing physical exercises. “He always does this,” whispers a fellow choir member at my side, referring to Graham, the Choir Director. “He says it’s important to get rid of tension.”
The activity changes to breathing exercises and tongue twisters and I’m wondering when I will actually get the chance to sing. As if he could read my mind, Graham launches into an explanation of why it’s so important to spend time warming up both our bodies and our voices. “You are your instrument,” he tells us. “Preparation is everything if you really want to sing well.”
As the session progresses I learn how to breathe from deep down in my ribcage rather than taking shallow breaths that use only a third of my lungs’ capacity. I also find out how to control my breathing, counting in-breaths and out-breaths and releasing air in a steady stream rather than letting it all go at once.
Finally we get to sing, and by this time my head is buzzing with all the extra oxygen I’ve taken on board. The real bonus is that my singing voice suddenly seems louder and more tuneful than usual simply because I’ve been using my lungs to their full capacity.
At the end of a two-hour session, during which we tackle songs ranging from “All That Jazz” from the musical Chicago to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, my new choir buddies and I are all excited and elated. The sound we created together was impressive and we are already discussing the possibility of taking part in a local festival.
Back at home, reflecting on my first ever choral session, it occurred to me there’s a lot more to joining a choir than just enjoying a good sing-along, and this view is backed up by a number of high profile experts in the world of the arts, education and medical science.
Professor Graham Welch, Chair of Music Education at the Institute of Education, University of London has extensively studied the developmental and medical aspects of singing. He claims that the health benefits are both physical and psychological. “Singing has physical benefits because it is an aerobic activity that increases oxygenation in the blood stream and exercises major muscle groups in the upper body, even when sitting.”
He believes that singing is also important for mental health: “Singing has psychological benefits because of its normally positive effect in reducing stress levels through the action of the endocrine system, which is linked to our sense of emotional well-being. Psychological benefits are also evident when people sing together as well as alone, because of the increased sense of community, belonging and shared endeavour.”
No wonder, then, that joining a choir has become such a popular hobby. Gareth Malone, who has started a number of choirs on TV, encourages singers to “Get out there and find what’s right for you”. On his website www.garethmalone.com he advises applicants to have an initial chat with the Choir Director to ask if they will need to read music and whether they will have to audition, adding the following reassurance: “What usually happens is that you take a piece which you know to sing to the choir director. It is nothing like the X-Factor!”
Choirs come in all shapes and sizes so it’s important to find one that suits you:
Classical concert choirs or choral societies
Large choirs that stage several concerts throughout the year, sometimes with an orchestra. They may perform concert works such as Mozart’s Requiem or Handel’s Messiah.
Depending on the type of worship practised by the congregation, you could find yourself singing traditional sacred music, gospel songs or modern hymns that sound more like pop hits.
Community choirs and other singing groups
Depending on what’s available in your local area you might find choirs that sing rock and pop, songs from the shows, folk songs or even beatbox and rap. Generally speaking any choir that describes itself as a ‘Community choir’ is less likely to require you to audition or read music.
When looking for a choir to join you can either do some research on the internet (try www.choirs.org.uk) or ask around locally. Look at the arts page in your local newspaper to find out which choirs are performing in your area or visit your local library for a list of community groups.
Many choirs offer a ‘taster’ session where you can sing with the group, chat to current members and also find out the costs involved (which can vary enormously, from £5 per session to £100 per term, depending on the size and profile of the choir).
It may not offer instant fame like X-Factor or The Voice, but being in a choir provides an opportunity to sing songs you love with like-minded people, and to share your love of music with others through performance. If that doesn’t persuade you to join, then the health and wellbeing aspects of choral singing certainly should.
by Kate McLelland