The Benefits Of A Community Choir

There has been an increase in the number of community choirs in Northern Ireland over the last decade. According to British Choirs on the net, there are approximately 34 community choirs in Northern Ireland with listed websites or Facebook pages (choirs.org.uk, n.d.), however this may only be a fraction of the actual number of operational community choirs in Northern Ireland. In a number of studies community choirs have been proven to provide a wide range of benefits not only to their participants but to the wider community as a whole.

Before we can examine the processes and methodologies used by music practitioners in establishing and maintaining these community choirs we must first understand what Community Music is. Community Music as a concept has never truly been defined by either arts practitioners, arts councils or music organisations, however for the purposes of this research project Community Music should be interpreted as a means of bringing a community of people together by offering a music service or a music hub to unite those who wouldn’t typically come together as one. Community Music draws upon the deprivation and experiences of people in society who are vulnerable or insecure. In summary, “Community Music is a group activity, bringing people together.” (Cahill, 1998)

To expand our understanding of the relevance of community choir benefits in the modern world it is critical that we delve further into the context of the topic and have some understanding of a relevant community arts practitioner who researched these benefits. Through researching the various benefits that adhere to having a community choir in society, the work of Professor Graham Welch appears to formulate the benefits concisely of a Community Choir. Professor Graham Welch is the Chair of Music Education at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London. As a renowned music practitioner, Professor Welsh is an ideal example of what a practitioner should be. He highlights in a recent presentation he conducted at Gresham College, London, of what he believes the benefits of being in a choir are, which I have focused on as my research for this Literature Review.

Social

The social component of being in a community choir is arguably one of the most important benefits. It allows a participant to feel part of the community and have a sense of confidence that they are just as important as another participant in the choir. Another key component of social is communicating with others. Perhaps, a member in the choir is usually house bound for medical reasons for example and being in a community choir is their only activity during the week, this allows them to be social and communicate to others, make friends and grow relationships with others. Additionally, Community choirs are a prime example of Group membership, which allows each member to respect and value the other members, creating a space which is inclusive to all.

“Group singing may lead to increases in positive feelings, decreases in negative feelings as well as increases in the release of the hormone oxytocin, which has previously been implicated in intimate social bonding” (Welch, 2013)

This is due to a community choir being a diverse group of members. Finally, social integration is a valuable benefit of a Community choir. According to Sociologist Émile Durkheim,

“people’s norms, beliefs, and values make up a collective consciousness, or a shared way of understanding and behaving in the world. The collective consciousness binds individuals together and creates social integration.” (courses.lumenlearning.com, n.d.)

I believe this is the most important benefit of a community choir as the learning in a community choir happens within a social process. This component is discussed further in the Education component. However, it is evident that in the everyday world,

“Musical sounds are a powerful human resource, often at the heart of our most profound social occasions and experiences. People in societies around the world use music to create and express their emotional inner lives, to span the chasm between themselves and the divine, to woo lovers, to celebrate weddings, to sustain friendships and communities, to inspire mass political movements, and to help their babies fall asleep” (Turino, 2008)

Psychosocial

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Psychosocial is

‘’pertaining to the influence of social factors on an individual’s mind or behaviour, and to the interrelation of behavioural and social factors’’ (Lahelma, 2002).

There are several psychosocial benefits of being in a Community choir;

  1. Intra-personal communication is the communication with one person
  2. Catharsis is the release of withheld emotions or feelings.
  3. Inter-personal Communication is the communication that occurs with two or more people.

Each of these psychosocial benefits are equally important. These benefits are a means of:

  • Distraction- “Certainly there is evidence that music can distract the listener and performer in many ways, e.g. possible through the immersive state of ‘flow’ (Csíkszentmihalyi 1996), and in doing so can provide health benefits” (Raymond MacDonald, 2012) This is crucial for the community arts practitioner to understand that certain members of the choir are there for the social benefit and distract from other life situations for example home life, work or family state of affairs.
  • Positive thoughts and feelings- “Singing fortifies health, widens culture, refines the intelligence, enriches the imagination, makes for happiness and endows life with an added zest.” (http://www.barbershop.org/education/vocal-health/health-benefits-of-singing/, n.d.)
  • Emotions- Music can affect our mood and emotions; it can have a positive effect.
  • Ambiguous- Music is ambiguous as it can have a different effect on different people, and some may hear a piece of music in a different light than others.
  • Music affecting behaviour- Music has been described as a universal language, where people of all ages and abilities can come together as one.

Musical

Music is ubiquitous. Especially with the level of technology today. We can listen to music anywhere on our phones, tv, computers or tablets.

For a music practitioner, enabling the education of music within a rehearsal or session for a choir is one of the main strategies. There are many musical traits that the practitioner may want to consider teaching to a choir;

Understanding of music such as phrasing, structure to create expression. This is an ideal concept to identify a choir who performs.

The development of Musical memory. For example, individuals who suffer from dementia may benefit from singing in a community choir. Singing can enhance memory and simulate memories from forgotten times.

“Even when someone can no longer talk, music becomes an avenue for communication and engagement. It seems to access parts of the brain that remain unaffected by the ravages of dementia.” (https://www.ageuk.org.uk/information-advice/health-wellbeing/conditions-illnesses/dementia/dementia-and-music/, 2018)

Through research it has been said that “10-20% of the general population is inaccurate when singing a melody from memory, or in pitch-making tasks.” (Simone Dalla Bella, 2011) However, Occasional singers tended to sing at a faster tempo and with more pitch and time errors relative to professional singers…but… when asked to sing more slowly, they are as accurate as professional singers.

Creation of a musical repertoire, bearing in mind that a community choir should be about equality. Furthermore, creating a wide range of music to suit everyone in the choir regardless of age, culture or music preference.

Increased expertise in vocal tone colouring, pitch, rhythm and loudness. This can make a community choir more specialised. It also increases the confidence of the singers by showing them they can perform professionally.

Physical

There are many physical attributes of singing in a choir:

a. Respiratory (aerobic)

The respiratory activity, even with sitting down, the upper part of the body counts. Especially for older folk as breathing can become anaerobic, singing improves respiratory health. Improved vocal and lung function.

b. Enhanced Mobility

For example, warm ups are an essential part of a choir rehearsal. This can be a good way of including the physical benefit to a choir. By using breathing exercises and vocal warm ups, this is a vital part of singing.

c. Strengthening posture

By teaching the choir how to sit or stand while singing can enhance posture.

d. Neurological Development

Singing has been proven to enhance brain activity as the brain has an integrated neurological modularity for example these parts of the brain are involved in the analysis of human voices. Music as an emotional experience is an intense pleasure when listening to music for example, experiencing an abstract sequence of sound unfolding over time is associated with dopamine activity. The pleasure sequence of dopamine release over time embraces both anticipation and resolution.

“Singing exercises, the vocal cords and keeps them youthful, even in old age. The less age-battered your voice sounds, the more you will feel, and seem, younger.” He says that when you break into song, your chest expands, and your back and shoulders straighten, thus improving your posture. Singing lifts moods and clears the “blues” by taking your mind off the stresses of the day, as well as releasing pain-relieving endorphins. As you sing along, the professor adds, your circulation is improved, which in turn oxygenates the cells and boosts the body’s immune system to ward off minor infections. And “it provides some aerobic exercise for the elderly or disabled,”

Educational

Being in a Community choir is also an educational experience. It can teach the understanding and skills about the world around us and impact on other aspects of intellectual development, such as literacy. The mission for most operational community choirs are to have a major element of learning and educating. Perhaps for some this involves starting from the beginning and learning to sing, or even others who are learning to accomplish improving singing certain techniques such as vibrato or reaching higher notes. This educational benefit is important as it can be a long-term progress of building confidence of old and new members joining the choir.

In summary;

“Social position, age, family background, circles of friends and education, all have a part to play in determining the value positions from which music is regarded. No one is free to swim away from a whole raft of value assumptions which determine not only what music we can engage but how we might respond to it” (Swanwick, 1988)

By delving into each aspect of the benefits of being in a Community choir, it is evident that there are many short-term and long-term health and well-being impacts of group singing for young and old. In summary, the human voice is an integral part of our identity and who we are. Just like the fingerprint, the voice is unique, everyone’s is different.

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