Sing! Sing! Sing! - RSA

Sing! Sing! Sing!

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  • Social brain
  • Health & wellbeing

Wellbeing is all the rage. Ever since Lord Layard put happiness on the political agenda, the wellbeing thing has been a hot topic. In the academic world, there’s wellbeing research centres and specialist groups (like this one at LSE), think tanks are all over it (NEF’s wellbeing centre, for example), there’s charities devoted to promoting wellbeing (like Action for Happiness) and it’s hit the public imagination with magazines such as the imaginatively titled Wellbeing growing in popularity all the time.

I guess I’ve been swept along with this tide of wellbeing cultivation along with everyone else, but for me there’s been one particular thing which I believe in so much I’ve had moments of being almost evangelical about it. Five years ago I joined a choir. To be precise, it was the wonderful Manchester Larks singing group, run by the inspirational natural voice network practitioner Faith Watson. From the very beginning, singing with this marvellous group of Mancunians was a tonic, a more or less instant pick-me-up, the effects of which lasted all week.

Faith Watson

No surprise then that I was pleased to see Mariam Akhtar’s piece in the Positive Psychology News Daily yesterday. When I meet someone who I think would benefit from singing in a group or choir (i.e. everyone!), I have my own little spiel about why it’s such a marvellous thing to do. I talk about the benefits of connecting with other people in a group, the particular magic of creating harmony together, the physical rewards of using your voice, the challenge of learning to listen more closely, and the joy of creating a gorgeous sound. I’m quite fond of citing evidence from research studies that group singing is an excellent anti-depressant, and has physical health benefits too.

Mariam Akhtar’s article on the positive power of singing together does the same sort of thing a little more elegantly. She goes through each of NEF’s evidence based five ways to wellbeing and showing how singing in a group allows you to kill five birds with one harmonious stone.

  • Connect – the choir is a community
  • Take Notice – you will be fully present with no effort
  • Be Active – singing is an aerobic activity
  • Keep Learning – the harmonies, the words, the physical skill
  • Give – be part of the positive mood contagion, whether through performing, or to the rest of the choir
  • I miss my Tuesday night singing with the Manchester Larks, not least because the people there became good friends, but also because we were particularly lucky to be led by Faith, who I have to say is not only a warm, inclusive, fun leader, but also an especially talented arranger. I’ve been having fun trying out other singing groups in London, and have so far been to several, ranging from the pretty serious Islington Choral Society to the more informal Hackney Harmony Community Singing Group. I haven’t quite decided which one I’ll settle in to, but with all these reasons why it’s good for me, there’s no chance of group singing being something I let fall by the wayside.

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    • Great piece, and could not agree more about the mood enhancing power of singing. As someone who loved to sing but isn't (frankly) very good at it and has had no formal training I was absolutely over the moon to discover Hackney Harmonies and the Natural Voice Movement more broadly.

      Thinking about education I think it's really important that we stop thinking about music - and singing in particular - as something that is for some special people, and not for the rest of us. The idea that some children (and adults) are 'musical' and 'can sing' is a damaging myth that excludes huge sections of the population from something really valuable (just as the myth that some children 'are academic' or 'are vocational' as if we have evolved as a species to fit these categories). I was told by a teacher when I was 5 years old that I was tone deaf, and wasn't allowed to join the choir for the nativity. This was something I believed until I'd passed numerous guitar and piano exams in my late teens, and was told that I definitely wasn't.  

      The Natural Voice Movement mission statement starts with 'singing is a birth right' and emphasises how cultures and societies across the world all sing together on a regular basis as a form of social bonding - apart from our own. If you don't attend a school or a religious institution then unless you're training or considered to be one of the blessed few who 'can sing' there are few opportunities to sing communally in modern British society (apart from after a sinful amount of white wine on a Friday night in a club playing 80s classics that everyone knows the words to...)

      Singing, for everyone, by everyone, not because we're good, but because it makes us feel amazing, and because human voices together sound pretty brilliant even with no technique or training, should be something that everyone gets to experience.

    • Next time, come for a beer. (Are you still singing with us? It's not clear from your piece).

    • There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that music can have positive
      effects on both well-being and the brain. At the UK Dementia Congress (Nov
      2011) consultant neuropsychologist Julia Clark gave a talk at the about the
      rehabilitatory value of music and dance. This is recognised by Alzheimer’s Society’s
      ‘Singing for the brain’ project , which is advertised as a way for
      people with dementia, along with their family carers, to express themselves and
      have fun in supportive social group. But there may be additional benefits.
      Julia Clark mentioned that the brain cells of musicians develop large number of
      connections and that there is compelling evidence, some of it from clinical
      trials about the effectiveness of music therapy in brain injury rehabilitation
      and in the treatment of depression.  I’m
      not much of a singer, but went to Manchester Larks once and was inspired sign
      up for one of Faith Watson’s workshops and join a natural voice group nearer
      home. Like Emma, it’s something I wouldn’t want give up.

    • Hi Andy - oops... I wasn't casting aspersions about the people in ICS, so much as the music/ mode of learning. Scores vs learning by ear, that sort of thing. For the record, the atmosphere wasn't at all serious, and the people I spoke to were lovely!

    • This reminds me of a blog I wrote earlier in the year about what harmony (or choral) singing has in common with co-operatives (in promoting working together, 'harmony' and listening) :

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