The wisdom of Wingsong

Singing togetherMy intention is not to make you jealous, but beware, it could happen—I’m about to describe our community choir.

I joined this choir some six or seven years ago. We meet weekly in a country town about a half hour’s drive from here. The town is Wingham and the choir is called Wingsong. You wouldn’t want to expect too much from a choir located in such a setting, but in this case you’d have underestimated the situation. Our choir is a winner, a fully satisfying experience.

Let me fill you in.

First, about a community choir: you don’t audition, you don’t have to have experience or be “a good singer”, you don’t commit to anything. There may or may not be concerts and gigs. You go just because you like to sing and you thrive on getting involved in the harmonies. As with most such choirs, we show up once a week, pay a small fee to cover the costs of the hall and photocopying of the music, and then sing for an hour and a half.

So what’s special about Wingsong? For one thing, we’ve become a good-sized choir. Last week there were over 45 people attending. You can get a truly full-bodied sound with 45 voices, in an almost equal distribution of basses, tenors, altos and sopranos. But to really understand Wingsong’s success, you start by looking at the top. Wingsong is blessed with not one but three choir directors, all highly experienced. One is a natural singer/musician and has led this choir for some 20 years. One, with a significant knowledge of voice, was a director of a Sweet Adeline’s choir for several years. One has an MA in music, near perfect pitch, and can arrange beautifully for four parts. They’re teachers and natural leaders, with a big-hearted commitment. They’ve all ended up in the Manning Valley (as you would, but that’s another story) and they co-lead this choir out of the sheer joy of the music and the contribution.

Another secret of success: Wingsong chooses thoroughly good songs, across a variety of genres. Last week we worked on two or three pulsing African numbers, a rocking gospel tune, a couple of pieces of Australiana that are heart-breakingly beautiful (including one that ought to be the Australian national anthem), and a complex, haunting song written and brilliantly arranged by a well-known NSW musician. There’s something for everyone—well, really, there’s everything for everyone.

One more thing that Wingsong does well is manage the dilemma of social versus musical priorities, which all choirs must face. You tend to relish many of the people you sing with, and the resulting conversational need has to be balanced with everyone’s desire to sing and learn songs in a disciplined fashion. We don’t have a lot of rules, but nonetheless, the work gets done without friction.

We help to resolve this dilemma with another ritual: going out for dinner at the pub afterward.

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In writing this post, I wanted to build a case for choirs, so I googled “health benefits of choral singing”. Accustomed though I am to marveling at what’s out there in the known universe, I was nonetheless stunned at the amount and depth of research that has been done about singing in a choir. I could have read all week and never got this post written.

One of my favourite posts was an article in Time magazine, called Singing Changes Your Brain: Here’s how the article opens:

When you sing, musical vibrations move through you, altering your physical and emotional landscape. Group singing, for those who have done it, is the most exhilarating and 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.

Hundreds of studies show provable benefits of choral singing physically. Oxygen in the bloodstream is increased, and exercise is provided for the heart and lungs. The accompanying movement of the body provides light exercise. Singing turns out to be a good upper body workout.

Choir 2A study reported by The Telegraph (UK) speaks about the benefits of working in a “cohesive social group”. Remarkably, people’s heartbeats become synchonised during choral singing. I’m not sure how that translates to a health benefit, but it points to the social aspects, also claimed to be important.

I encountered much research focusing on neural activity: what the brain is doing while you are singing. For example, for those of you interested in arcuate fasciculus, modularity and use-dependent neuroplasticity (!), here’s just the article for you.  It’s exhaustive, and you may find it a touch exhausting.

The psychological benefits are strongly documented. Choir singing is known to stimulate two of the “happy hormones”, oxytocin and endorphins, which results in a lowering of stress levels and blood pressure. Also from the Time article:

As the popularity of group singing grows, science has been hard at work trying to explain why it has such a calming yet energizing effect on people. What researchers are beginning to discover is that singing is like an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirits.

One researcher spoke about choral singing being “an outlet for the emotions people are carrying”. Other studies claim that singing lessens feelings of depression. And there’s no need to be a good singer, according to the studies. Just show up and let the music wash you clean. For several years now Rick and I have made our annual trek home from Canada the day after Labor Day. We fly for innumerable hours, navigate airports, get in a car, drive several more hours to get to Mitchells Island, unpack—and head off for choir. Jet-lagged, severely over-tired and displaced, this is how we find our way home.

I particularly relish this quote, which takes us straight to the tangled roots of our existence:

A very recent study even attempts to make the case that “music evolved as a tool of social living,” and that the pleasure that comes from singing together is our evolutionary reward for coming together cooperatively, instead of hiding alone, every cave-dweller for him or herself. (Enthusiastic emphasis is mine.)

As I stand in choir, surrounded by the harmonies and the intense focus of everyone there, I can believe this is an evolutionary reward. It’s one of the finest things I experience about being human.

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I made a passing remark earlier about a song we sing which “should be our national anthem”. It’s a song about Australia—and a song about singing.

Choir 3I will sing you up, my country
I will sing you up, my land
I will walk across this island,
I will sing you, I will sing to you

 

You are old and you are drying
Murray River down and dying
I will sing you up, my country
I will sing you, I will sing to you
Of a love that pulses in me
Of a love you can take with you
I will sing you up my country
I will sing you up, I’ll sing you up, I’ll sing you up
I’ll sing.

Rachel Hore, choir leader/songwriter/singer

….Well, all right, maybe not quite national anthem material—but an anthem to the healing and joy-making powers of singing.