Cheaper Than Therapy
Yes, that’s me up there on the stage. In the middle of the third row, in my sparkly frock. It was a charity concert for Children in Need, and we raised over £1000 (about $1300) that night.
I’ve always enjoyed singing – in the shower, in the car. Belting it out singing along to an Eagles CD. But I had never thought of joining a choir until we moved to Devon. My husband was born here, but I didn’t know a soul. The pages of the magazine Agony Aunts always have letters: young mums desperate for some “me” time, hard-working women looking for a way to de-stress; empty-nesters, movers, retirees. “I want to make new friends – what can I do?”
Well, here’s my suggestion. Join a choir. There are choirs of every type, all over the country. Ladies only, men only, mixed. Choirs that sing classical choral style, some that focus on soul music or world music. Most of them have websites, some with music clips so you can hear them sing. That’s how I found Riviera Sound.
Of course it’s scary going somewhere for the first time, walking in to a whole group of strangers on your own. But choirs are very friendly - I had only made it as far as the car-park before a smiley blonde lady spotted me and came over: “Are you looking for the rehearsal?”
Now, I have to make a small correction here. We aren’t a choir – we’re a chorus. It’s a fine distinction I know, but it’s something about the style of singing. We’re an all-ladies chorus, and we sing unaccompanied four-part harmony. We sing pop songs old and new, songs from the shows, schmoozy ballads and swinging rock songs – at the moment we’re learning This is Me from the Greatest Showman, and Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen is a big favourite. We sing at weddings, at Christmas carol concerts and charity events. We sang at a garden party for the Queen’s jubilee, and at the local Gay Pride festival – even at the re-opening of Babbacombe’s cliff railway!
So how does four-part harmony work? Think Barbershop, where you have four singers – a lead who mostly takes the melody, a tenor harmonising a little higher, a bass singing lower, and a baritone who kind of weaves around filling out the sound. We even keep the same names for the sections, though we’re all women.
You don’t have to be an amazing singer to join us, though everyone in our chorus does have a good voice. Other types of choirs are more picky or less picky – some want you to be able to read music, others are mainly for sing-along fun. Shop around to find what suits you. What you will find, I guarantee, is that after a couple of months of practice your voice will have improved enormously.
That first night, Chris - our Musical Director – gave me a quick (private) voice-test to see which section to put me in. A few weeks later, when I’d managed to learn a couple of songs, I had to sing my part alongside someone from each of the other three sections, to see if I could hold my own when all around you are singing something else.
No, it isn’t easy – but that’s part of the fun. You have to learn your own part really well – we get “teach-tapes” which play the notes for you, as well as the sheet music. Load the teach-tape onto your MP3 player and listen to it while you’re doing the ironing, or driving, or whatever. Often we will practice it in our own sections. Then we all get together and… er… try it.
With some songs it’s amazing how quickly we can pick it up, with others we have to go over it and over it. Chris will stop us and make us get it spot on, all starting the line exactly together, all pronouncing the words exactly the same. We get tired, fed-up, never want to hear that song again… And then suddenly some kind of magic happens, and you’re left thinking, “Wow! Was that us?”
And it’s not just that sense of achievement that makes singing in a chorus so good for you. There’s no way you can keep worrying about the gas bill, or that pile of work waiting on your desk, when you’re trying to remember to go from an A to an A flat while the person next to you is singing an F. American writer Kurt Vonnegut said, “Practicing an art… is a way to make your soul grow.”
Science has even got something to say on the subject. Professor Graham Welch, of the University of London, has studied singing for 30 years and he says that singing reduces stress by acting on 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.”
And it’s not just your psychological health – Professor Welch says it’s good for your physical health too. “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.”
But the best thing is probably the friendships. There are over thirty of us in the chorus, all ages and types, but the love of singing is what unites us. Any sing-out is an opportunity to go for a coffee or a drink together afterwards. At Christmas we have a party, in the summer a barbeque.
Last year we went to Jersey – supposedly to compete in the Jersey International Choir Festival but really to have a rollicking good time. Hitting the shops en-masse in our bright red fleece jackets, we attracted quite a lot of attention, and several people asked what we were about – and inevitably the request came, “Give us a song, then.” So we did!
Paul McCartney – one of the Beatles - said, “I love to hear a choir. I love to see the faces of real people devoting themselves to a piece of music. I like the teamwork. It makes me feel optimistic about the future of the human race when I see them co-operating like that.”
Or how about, “Singing in a choir is cheaper than therapy, healthier than drinking, and more fun than working out.” I don’t know who first said that, but it works for me.
About Susanne McCarthy
Susanne is a British writer of Romance novels. To find out about her books, visit her website (www.susannemccarthy.com where you'll also find some free short stories.