The Glorious World of Choir

I don’t sing because I’m happy. I’m happy because I sing. –  William James

Those of us in the choral world have witnessed first-hand the glorious and wide-ranging benefits of group singing. But not everyone ‘gets it’. If you are required to justify why choir is deserving of a place in the timetable, the few notes here may assist your case.

There is so much good that comes from group singing it is difficult to choose where to start the lobby. But we can find a beginning in this quote from Aristotle:

Above all, human beings seek self-esteem and happiness.

What we do in school and community programs should address life goals such as those espoused by Aristotle. Self-esteem is enhanced by making progress and reaching goals. Sticking at a task such as learning a song requires a level of self-discipline and ‘stick-at-it-iveness’ that builds character. Studies on the mental health effects of participants who sing in choirs address these life goals and are consistently positive. As one study commissioned by Victoria Health Australia found, people in choirs report fun, enjoyment, happiness, humour, excess smiling, invigoration, exhilaration, and relaxation. (See VicHealth (2010) Group Singing: Community Mental Health and Wellbeing and Health Benefits of Singing.) Adults in community choirs experience a release from day to day worries and tensions. As one becomes fully immersed in choral activity there is little attentional space left over to worry about the self. Supporting emotional health is of fundamental importance for communities, and very clearly, choirs achieve this. Having a performance outlet is also valuable; there is something quite empowering and pleasurable about transmitting an aesthetic experience to others. What’s more, people gain increased confidence through public performance. Self-confidence, which is related to self-esteem, is enhanced through singing in a choir. Further to this, a good way to improve the speaking voice is to cultivate the singing voice.

There is no doubt that choral singing is good for physical health. The full body experience that is singing requires attention to posture and various body muscles. There is a connection between the emotional and physical. When we are stressed, it affects our body. Blood pressure, pulse rate, body temperature can all increase. We can become tense and suffer ailments such as headaches and insomnia. Activities that alleviate stress reduce these physical health problems. One Swedish study, chronicled in ‘Frontiers of Psychology’ in July 2013, found that when people sing together their heartbeats are synchronised. Singers not only coordinate their breathing, but choral singing has the overall effect of lowering the heart rate. This finding suggests that it is possible that singing is beneficial to one’s blood pressure. Music–the most emotional and centripetal of the arts-has a unique capacity to moderate our emotions. Many people self-report that music makes them feel better physically. Some medical research claims that endorphins (the body produces these to combat stress and pain) are released through singing. Other research suggests that the hormone oxytocin is released when people sing together. (I have written more extensively about oxytocin in a separate blog post).

The personal skills developed through choir are too numerous to fully discuss here, but choral singing requires one to stop, listen and to be aware. This occurs on an emotional, empathetic, physical and even spiritual level. Indeed, music activity is the most reconciling activity as nothing else gives such a thoroughly integrated whole-person experience. Today, neuroscience confirms for us that no other activity is capable of stimulating the whole brain as completely as does music-making. The social element of choral music takes this a step further. The requirement to generate ensemble through teamwork requires compromise, discipline and commitment. Choirs provide an alternative teamwork environment to sport and incorporate cross-age mentoring. Choristers pay attention to what someone else is doing and coordinate actions with others. This requires an attention to subtlety. Not least important are the musical skills learned in choirs. I encourage solo instrumentalists, whatever their genre, to sing in choirs as an invaluable aspect of developing personal musicianship and reading skills. American based The Chorus Impact Study (www.chorusamerica.org/publications.cfm) found that students who sing in choirs get better school grades than those who don’t sing in choirs.

Possibly the most important community benefit resulting from choirs is the resultant sense of belonging, a sense of social connection, social identity, group cohesion and purpose. The good news is that these benefits are not even dependent on the quality of the result. Choral participation is a powerful instrument for advancing social inclusion. Perhaps this is assisted with the release of oxytocin. Beauty is the lubricant of the soul. We share our voice and seek beauty together in a collaborative rather than a competitive manner. Members listen to one another and forge new friendships. A sense of belonging ensues. This welcome mat breaks down barriers of age, backgrounds and abilities, and multi-cultural repertoire furthers this inclusivity. In Australia, the government of Victoria has invested in choir programs that link art and health with the aim of building community, and with some success, as singing in groups has become the number one community arts activity in that state. The ‘bottom line’ for governments, companies and schools is that choral singing programs are inexpensive to set up and accessible across economic and cultural strata. The voice is free.

Choir programs have contributed to the rehabilitation of prison inmates. Research clearly shows that low self-esteem is related to criminal activity. Participation in prisoner education choral programs has proven effective in spawning the competence and sense of belonging essential for raising self-esteem. Look to Venezuela where the remarkable El Sistemá orchestral program for disaffected children is being trialled in penitentiaries and has been extended to include a choral program. In these Caracas prisons the orchestra and choir options are the most popular activities selected, more so than carpentry, metal work or sewing. The program is intense. Inmates make music eight hours a day, five days per week, and the resulting transformative effects have been remarkable. More than half the prisoners are taking part in this musical renaissance. As one inmate said “my life has changed 100 percent”. (Grainger, S. Venezuela Prisons offer Hope to Inmates. BBC News, 7 August 2011). Elsewhere, incarcerated youth in detention facilities report consistently positive outcomes from singing in a choir:

  • The formation of special relationships with other choir members, different to the relationships with non-choir participants. (Is this oxytocin at work?)
  • Significant improvements in emotional stability, social behaviour and happiness.
  • Deeply personal and special insights, like entering a sacred space beyond words and explanation.
  • Positive influence on rehabilitation, with lesser instances of offending behaviour.

Audiences benefit from attending choral concerts. Seeing and hearing people sing together gives hope. This is particularly so when older adults hear the thrilling sound of adolescent choirs. As Traddles says to David Copperfield “She sings ballads to freshen up the others a little when they’re out of spirits.” Our performances give listeners an opportunity to explore their inner self. Listening causes self-reflection, nurturing the process of becoming, of identity formation. This is the most wonderful gift from musician to listener.

Music gives the soul energy. Music is humane and social; it is the tonal bridge-building fabric of society. Music plays a vital role in energizing the self and gives us a reason to live, a reason to be. Music provides us with a constant source of beauty and wonder. Through choirs we have the opportunity to preach to the world that music is, as Beethoven said, a revelation “greater than all wisdom and philosophy.”

To choral conductors around the world, I thank you for joining me in spreading the good-news message that is choir. Learn, teach, conduct, sing together, and share your music!

From ‘Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs’ by Michael Griffin

New – 2nd edition with 25% more exercises.

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‘Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs’

Bumblebee! is more than just a collection of 123 choir exercises and rounds. The author shares timeless wisdom to help you get your choir – primary or secondary – into shape.

 View Table of Contents.

“Will prove useful for almost everyone”- Rhinegold Music Teacher Magazine.

“This is a great resource to add to one’s library of rehearsal tricks.”- Anacrusis, ACCC, Canada

 

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Latest review

“A must read for all music educators” – Robert Adams, New Haven, USA.

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“Deeply impressive, the breadth of research is fascinating!” – Robert Chamberlain, Team of Pianists and Monash University Piano Staff, Victoria Australia.

“Awesome! I want to recommend it to every teacher I know” – Michael Williamson, Australia

“I loved it. Extremely helpful and inspiring!” – Cheryl Livingstone, Australia

“The best resource for music educators” – Andrew Heuzenroeder, Australia

“I have read your book and it has made an amazing difference in my teaching and in my studio.” Beth Cruickshank, Past President – Ontario Registered Music Teachers Association.

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Also by Michael Griffin

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Music and Keyboard in the Classroom: Fundamentals of Notation is a unit of work for general music middle school classes. Designed around the mastering of practical skills, it integrates theory, aural and history, and allows students to progress at their own rate. View Table of Contents.  “This has been a great buy; the books are just superb! Interesting topics with a wide range of pieces. Great content with clear progression of learning. Fascinating teaching philosophy! BRAVO!” -The Grieg Academy, London. Available at Amazon.com

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Music and Keyboard in the Classroom: Let’s Get Creative! is the fun and creative extension to ‘Fundamentals of Notation’.

View Table of Contents. “We have been using your keyboard course and the results have been amazing!”  – St George College, Australia

Available at Amazon.com

harmony bk cover

Modern Harmony Method: Fundamentals of Jazz and Popular Harmony (Third Edition, 2013) is a clear and well organised text suitable for students of arranging and composition, and for classically trained musicians wishing to grasp the beautiful logic of jazz harmony. Essential understandings include chord selection, voicing, symbols, circle of 4th progressions, extensions, suspensions and alterations. Included in the 107 pages are explanations, examples, exercises and solutions. The course can be started with students in year 9 and worked through to year 12 musicianship, composing and arranging.  Available at Amazon.com

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Public speaker, music education trainer, conductor and pianist. Author of 'Learning Strategies for Musical Success', 'Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs', and 'Modern Harmony Method'.

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2 comments on “The Glorious World of Choir
  1. Brilliant, thorough, much needed! Thank you!

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