Pump up the volume and sing out

Do you remember how much we used to sing as children? From regular singing classes to school assemblies, concerts and other performances; and if you went to a private school, then many hours practising hymns to the sound of the church organ.

We didn’t know it back then, but singing kept us young, healthy and happy. So why did we stop? That’s a good question to ask in light of the many studies that suggest straining the vocal chords is very healthy for the rest of our body.

In 2015, The Royal Society published a study of how quickly people bond when they are doing different types of activities. The researchers studied adults over seven months attending singing, craft and creative writing courses.

They found that the singing students bonded more quickly with each other. Using various scientific metrics, the researchers concluded that the ritual of singing probably came about to foster social cohesion in various cultures.

“Generating cohesion in large groups … requires some means of emotionally connecting many individuals simultaneously, without the need for direct dyadic interaction,” they wrote.

The paper said there was an association between singing and the release of the neuropeptides oxytocin and endorphin, which are known to be linked to social bonding.

“As a co-ordinated and often synchronous activity, for example, in terms of breath and heart rhythms, as well as timing and pitch, it is unsurprising that singing has also been linked with elevated endorphin levels.”

And the results of the experiment revealed that synchronous activity such as singing led to strong friendships.

“Overall, our results indicate that compared with individuals participating in craft or creative writing classes, singers experience a greater increase in both self-reported closeness to their group and positive affect.” 

According to chorister Terry Thomas, there is a Welsh word that describes the phenomenon – hywl, a stirring feeling of emotional motivation and energy.

Mr Thomas, 83, along with colleague Gwyn Harper, 79, are long-time members of the Melbourne Welsh Male Choir who love extolling the virtues of singing.

The men, who were born in Wales, swear by the physical, psychological and social benefits of collective singing – and the sheer joy it brings.

“Singing makes me feel alive and happy. It means everything. I would be lost without it. I like golf but singing is so much better, so much more rewarding,” said Mr Thomas, who, along with the rest of the choir, is preparing for performances in Melbourne and Bendigo this month.

“If it weren’t for the choir, I’d be sitting at home twiddling my thumbs. You meet nice people and have lots of laughs. We exchange lots of insults, of the playful kind, of course.”

Mr Thomas was a founding member of the Melbourne Welsh Male Choir in 1984, which is one of 12 that branched out from the Cantorian Cymraeg after a disagreement.

“We invited our friends and the choir just grew. We welcome all comers – you don’t have to be Welsh. Many are Australian-born and there are Scots, Irish, Dutch, New Zealanders, even English! At other times our choir has included Tongans, Samoans, Latvians, Lithuanians and South Africans. We all get a lot out of it,” he said.

The choristers vouch for the pastime’s therapeutic benefits, too. Even after major surgery, the singers turn up for rehearsals, despite not being up to official performances.

Mr Harper was recruited to the choir in 1992 by his daughter’s Welsh-language tutor and served a number of years as president.

“The average age of the choir is 70-plus and some have problems with their hips, knees, and backs or suffer from other ailments but members are totally committed to turning up every Wednesday night for three hours’ practice,” Mr Harper said.

“At the end, we’re physically tired but also energised. There’s nothing like singing to get the old endorphins going,” he said.

Gwyn says that performing in the choir is also good brain exercise.

“We all have to learn the songs by heart, since we do not use music on stage and it’s a lot of work. There’s also a lot of camaraderie that boosts us all. We stir the crap out of each other,” he said.

“More seriously, performing as a choir fills us with hiraeth, a Welsh word that means a deep longing for home. And, of course, you don’t have to be Welsh to feel that.”

David Ashton-Smith OAM, who became the choir’s director in early 2016, says that the great benefits of choral singing have long been evident to him.

“I’ve been involved with directing choirs of various persuasions for nearly 40 years. Science is now proving what we’ve known intuitively – that singing is good for you in every respect,” Mr Ashton-Smith said.

“It releases endorphins, which reduce stress and anxiety levels and contribute to a positive mental state. It syncs heartbeats and endocrine systems and improves mood and overall well-being,” he said.

“Singing boosts the amount of oxygen in the blood, increases energy levels, and works out a range of muscles in the upper body. Music also exercises the brain. Learning new songs is cognitively stimulating and helps memory. It has been shown that singing can help those suffering from dementia.”

And in the words of social research author Hugh Mackay, “People who sing in a choir, for instance, typically report that this is one of the most therapeutic things they’ve ever done – it’s good for your breathing, your posture, your mental acuity, and for building trust within the group.

“They will tell you that the experience of using only your voice to make music in company with others is uniquely thrilling. If you were ever told that you can’t sing, the person who told you that was wrong: you don’t have to have a wonderful voice to sing, and any competent teacher can help you learn to hit the right note,” Mr MacKay wrote in his recently published Australia Reimagined.

The choir will perform at 2pm on Saturday 23 June at the Melbourne Recital Centre and at  2pm on Sunday 24 June at Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo. For tickets to the Melbourne performance, call (03) 9699 3333 and for Bendigo (03) 5434 6100

The 50-strong choir will be joined by acclaimed New Zealand-born bass-baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes, and Melbourne soprano Kate Amos.

Do you enjoy singing? If so, how do you feel when you don’t sing for a while? What other activities do you regularly do to maintain your well being?

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Written by Olga Galacho

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