Choirs are mushrooming across the country. I first joined a choir at the tender age of six and I’ve never really shaken it off. Tuesday nights are special for me. I look forward to the camaraderie of the choir, the collective endeavour, the hope that we will crack this tricky piece, the soaring sound of the harmonies. I fear my lack of homework being shown up and I fear the moment when the tenors have to sing an exposed, difficult section but by 9.45pm I realise that for the last two hours of I have concentrated more and laughed louder than for the rest of my week put together. It is this cocktail which brings me back week after week, against a backdrop of the ups and downs of work, illness, birth and death. The music is the thing.
“Group singing is the most transformative of all. It takes something incredibly intimate, a sound that begins inside you, shares it with a roomful of people and it comes back as something even more thrilling: harmony.” Time Magazine 2013
Choir singing is growing. In America, 32.5 million adults sing in choirs, up by almost 10 million over the past six years. In the UK, the primary school phenomenon ‘Young Voices’ has taken children and their parents into a new world of music and emotion within the structure of formal singing. For girls and boys.
Singing together generates endorphins, which bring us happiness or elation. Oxytocin, another hormone sparked by singing, alleviates anxiety and builds bonding. So when we are part of a choir, we feel less lonely and more connected. In one study, singers were found to have lower levels of cortisol, meaning lower stress. Group singing is cheaper than a counsellor, better than alcohol, and an aerobic activity into the bargain.
My son’s research for his music degree suggested that music grew as a social construct for group living. The enjoyment from singing together is our learnt evolutionary reward for team working, rather than hiding alone in our caves. In the dog-eat-dog education system where we have taught children from Y6 SATs to Y13 A Levels to compete, that it is us against the world, group singing is a very different kind of educational philosophy.
My son now plays the piano in a number of old folks’ homes in town. He loves the way that music creates a genuine response from people, unlocks memories, makes lonely elderly people smile and join in. Whether it is Elton John, Elvis or Elgar. Musicians in the community encourage singing to treat neurological issues from stuttering to Parkinson’s Disease. The Centre for Performance Science (a partnership of the Royal College of Music and Imperial College London) considers how singing supports mental health, and organisations such as Gloucestershire’s ‘Mindsong’ bring music therapies to those living with dementia.
So these are some of the reasons that this weekly singing with our Y7 choir has given me so much pleasure. The whole year group, boys and girls, singing together for a timetabled lesson each week, and putting some oomph into it. Music is also and rightly about high performance. Developing musicians and creating a culture where high quality is key to enjoyment and building great schools. But with singing this can often be reduced to a small number of people in a choir and a few soloists as we move up the years. We are developing a whole school singing culture where everyone is proud, not ashamed, to sing.
In building properly inclusive communities and schools, look no further than this brilliant clip from Vic Goddard: note that part of the whole experience is how the audience plays their part.
I always hate the first rehearsal of a new piece. My sight-reading is poor, and we bash through the notes and tentatively sing sections together, but it feels clumsy. A musical form of paint by numbers. But David, our musical director breaks it down for us. We start with the first 28 bars, and we split as soprano/alto and tenor/bass sections in separate rooms. Each section sings alone, then together with the other voice, and then after the break we bring all the parts together. Gently at first and with lots of overgenerous encouragement, then more focused coaching so that by 9.45pm the last few minutes of the rehearsal actually begin to hum and there is a moment where I stop singing and just listen to the harmony and a shiver runs through me. A transcendent moment. Then it’s homework (bars 29-56) and next week we will do the same, but for the second half we re-sing through the bits we learnt the previous week. A kind of retrieval practice. This is the ‘core’. We begin to feel it build.
We proceed for a few weeks like this, assembling the nuts and bolts of how the piece functions and this is where David weaves his background magic. His ‘hinterland’. He steps back from the immediate, the music, the notes and then talks to us about what the words we are singing really mean, the sense of passion in the piece or what we want our audience to feel. This is the musical back story – where the magic happens. He asks us to listen to a professional choir (The Sixteen) with their version of this piece. But he waits a few weeks until we have some traction with the music before he hits us with this context. It has more impact that way. It sticks.
Of course there the end goal – the concert, the final event we have been working towards. The dawning realisation at 2pm on a Saturday afternoon as we meet the soloists and the orchestra on the stage for the first time and I begin to understand the collective parts coming together to make the whole. The humbling feeling of being on stage with professionals – real singers and players. But at the end of the performance when the crowd melts away it’s the next rehearsal I’m looking forward to. It’s about the learning, the doing, each Tuesday night, the settling into the groove and what the next piece will be. That’s my music curriculum. My music habit.
Is it too much to suggest that as we sing, we meet our best self? There is that personal goal of committing to something each week. Does this jointly creative act do something special to us? We spend our lives comparing ourselves in unhealthy ways, but although we stand shoulder to shoulder alongside fellow singers it is the shared endeavour which is key, not who sings best. Can singing make the world better? Are there positive changes which can trickle into our lives – our families our friends, our schools and communities? This sounds a little grand, but I know that there’s a skip in my step each week after rehearsal.
My wife joined a choir three weeks ago. Her choir sing a different genre of music. I played her the sublime ‘Ruht Wohl’ from the St John Passion so that she will be moved as I am moved. She simply looks at me and says: “Well, its not Tainted Love is it?”