To Sing or Not to Sing – That’s no Question

by 8th October 2009Choirmasters Corner0 comments

SingBramley | Bramley Community Choir“The only thing better than singing is more singing,” said Ella Fitzgerald. Perhaps such a statement is to be expected from a world-famous artist with an era-defining voice, but she wasn’t the only one to wax lyrical on the benefits of a good vocal performance. “He who sings frightens away his ills,” said Cervantes. Even Mr Cornflakes himself John Harvey Kellogg – -had this to add in 1931: “Singing promotes health, breathing, circulation and digestion.”

Singing might be fun, might be joyful and uplifting, might inspire poetry and paeans. But could it actually be good for you? Oh yes. It seems that Kellogg was dead right

Last year, the government announced £40m of funding in the National Singing Programme to get every primary-school pupil singing regularly. And there are, apparently, now more choirs in this country than there are fish and chips shops.

This year, for instance, Heart Research UK will run a Sing for Your Heart week to raise money and also to highlight the health benefits of singing. This event or series of events take place from December 8 to 15. Good choice of week, as the carol singing quotas will be in full flood (watch this website to find out more).

Of course, there is also an increasing interest in the physical, psychological and emotional benefits of singing. Just this last September the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health at Canterbury Christ Church University hosted a conference to explore the role of music and singing in health, social care and community development. I will post a report on their conclusions when I have read it.

The Sidney De Haan centre undertakes research and provides evidence to support their aim of getting the NHS to provide “singing on prescription”. Professor Grenville Hancox, director of music at the university and co-director of the centre, says, “We are convinced that it is a powerful tool. Research we’ve just done involving international choirs and over 12,000 people identified several particular benefits of regular group singing, including specific examples of people who say it helped them recover from strokes or heart attacks.”

The research available on singing identifies some key physical benefits. It exercises major muscle groups in the upper body. It is an aerobic activity that improves the efficiency of your cardiovascular system and encourages you to take more oxygen into your body, leading to increased alertness.

Aerobic activity is linked to stress reduction, longevity and better overall health. Improved airflow in the upper respiratory tract is likely to lessen the opportunity for bacteria to flourish there, countering the symptoms of colds and flu. Singing also aids the development of motor control and coordination, and recent studies have shown that it improves neurological functioning.

But the benefits of singing extend beyond the fizzing of synapses and the whizzing of oxygenated blood cells. “There is an increasing appreciation that the way people feel about themselves is going to have an impact on the budgets of the NHS,” says Hancox.

“If people are content they are less likely to encounter physical problems.” He points out that feeling better through song is not a new discovery. “There is evidence to suggest that in their infirmaries, monks used to sing to each other as part of the healing process. And other cultures use singing constantly as a means to live.”

SingBramley | Bramley Community ChoirI have a choir member here in our Bramley choir by the name of Chris Wright. Chris suffered a serious back injury in a boating accident. At the time he was working in the USA and so underwent a number of radical operations. Now back living in the UK, Chris still has a way to go before his back is anywhere near ‘pain free’. He endures daily discomfort on a scale most would find unbearable. He inspired me however, for after joining the choir he took me aside to tell me; “There is nothing like singing for generating that feel good factor. It’s almost indescribable. It’s an incredible endorphin rush. You feel like you’ve got a spring in your step. You feel like you’re being totally true to yourself. It is like making love in a way. You’re using your whole body, everything is involved.”

Chris went on to tell me how for the past four years he had struggled with pain and depression. His old hobbies of sport, motorbikes, outdoor activity and the like were now denied him. He needed something to help him feel the ‘rush’ we all depend on to lift our spirits. Singing has given him that. A great deal of research is being done into music and medicine and how music can ameliorate pain. At Bramley we can genuinely testify to its positive effects.

But as well as the sheer pleasure of opening your mouth and belting out a tune, there is the ‘buzz’ singing brings. Think of a football stadium with everyone singing. There’s an excitement, you feel part of it, singing bonds people and always has done. There’s a goosebumpy feeling of connection. In Italy research has demonstrated a link between the vigour of local choirs and the level of civic engagement. Mind you, they always did love to sing.

I read a quote from Nikki Slade, who runs chanting and voice-work classes for everyone from City bankers to addicts at The Priory. She believes that the benefits of singing are linked to the primacy and power of the human voice – and our basic instinct to use it. “People are naturally free and expressive,” she says, “but it’s something that has been lost on a day-to-day basis.”

Remember the last time you were able to watch the evolving behaviour of your friends at a karaoke night – from shy microphone-refuseniks at the start of the night to stage-hogging stars by the end of it – to see that, basically, everybody wants to sing. Though some find it harder than others to take the first steps.

For me, the point about singing is that it is something we all did when we were born, regardless of colour, creed or anything else. All the billions of us on the planet sang and for the first nine months of our lives relied on the manipulation of our voice’s pitch to meet our basic and fundamental needs. I have used singing as a communication device with my children and now my grandchildren. As did my father with me.

I have met many advocates of singing who lament its diminishing role in our lives: from the days when we sang round the piano in the pub and to pass the working day, to soothe babies and to mark moments of celebration and sorrow. Singing is sacred and everyday, ritualistic and spontaneous. It makes us better, and makes us feel better. And we should all be doing more of it.

I truly believe that if a person sings only once a month, it makes an extraordinary difference. It’s a staggering thing, but then I could never wait that long to sing.