Doh, Ray Me Time

choir300Doh, Ray Me Time

Singing is not only good for us physically, but is clinically proven to put us in a happier place. Take note…

Janet Watson

I was listening to Radio 2 while driving last week and the New Seekers’ hit ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’ flooded the car, just as the sun appeared from behind a cloud to light the newly green fields and hills around me. I sang along and felt happy.

I wasn’t very tuneful but I didn’t care. Sesame Street’s puppets sang, ‘don’t worry that it’s not good enough, for anyone else to hear, just sing, sing a song’. In tune or no, research and experience suggest singing is good for mind and body. Just ask Gareth Malone, whose BBC series about choirs have achieved record viewing figures.

We are becoming a nation of singers. Actress turned singing teacher Nikki Slade – who encourages clients and pupils to ‘free their inner voice’ – believes singing for the soul is going to become as popular as yoga within the next 10 years. “Everyone will be doing some form of chanting or singing,” she predicts. “It will be as important as drinking water.”

Dr Larry Culliford, a consultant psychiatrist in Brighton, who introduced Slade’s work to the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP), is a firm supporter. He believes singing works on two levels: by physically encouraging people to breathe and use their whole body better, and emotionally helping them find creative resources. “There are hidden reserves of strength and hope, and indeed happiness, that singing somehow spontaneously helps people to find,” he says.

Another enthusiast is Professor John Cox, president of the RCP, and himself a semi-professional singer – ‘a traditional English tenor’ – who performs annually at the Edinburgh Fringe. In Victorian times, he says, asylums had their own orchestra and choir, conducted by the chief doctor. “All singing can be liberating, whether it is ‘Auld Lang Syne’ at the end of a party or ‘Abide With Me’ at a football match,” says Professor Cox.

For Alison Hampton, director of Edinburgh’s PF Counselling Service, the link between singing and mental health seems natural. When one of her volunteer counsellors, who sings with the city’s Cadenza choir, suggested a much-needed fund-raiser for the service – where 98 counsellors provided nearly 12,000 hours of client support last year – Alison didn’t hesitate to accept the offer. “It felt right immediately. We knew the main connection that singers and counsellors all have with others is emotional, so we added in Richard Holloway reading some well-loved poetry, and it wasn’t difficult to see that our theme was ‘Voices from the Heart’. Sometimes people think about counselling and therapy only in terms of dealing with difficult things in life, but like singing, it can be uplifting. We have clients who say ‘I couldn’t have got through my life without the support and encouragement I got from my counsellor’ and I know people say similar things about singing in choirs, so it just seemed like a natural fit.”

But what exactly was happening inside me as I strangled the New Seekers’ harmonies? The evidence of many studies into the health benefits of singing is overwhelming, according to Professor Graham Welch, Director of Educational Research at the University of Surrey. “It releases endorphins, making you feel energised and uplifted. Singing gives lungs a workout, tones abdominal and intercostal muscles, and stimulates circulation. It makes us breathe more deeply than many forms of strenuous exercise, so we take in more oxygen, improve aerobic capacity and experience a release of muscle tension too.

“Singing keeps vocal cords youthful, even in old age. The less age-battered your voice sounds, the more you feel, and seem, younger,” adds Welch. Singing clears the “blues” by taking your mind off the stresses of the day. As you sing, the professor adds, your circulation is improved, which oxygenates cells and boosts the immune system to ward off minor infections.

Even babies sing. John Lennon, professor of vocal performance at Emeritus Emporia State University, Oklahoma, says: “Babies sing to themselves. The fact we recognise no identifiable melodic sequence does not mean it’s not singing. Such spontaneous oral response has sustained emission, rhythm, pitch variation and emotional expression. Like the infant, we sing because we feel good and singing makes us feel even better.”

For PF’s volunteer counsellor Christine Hewitt, who suggested the service should benefit from Cadenza’s annual charity concert, singing is a way of life, and fits with her therapy work. “My father was a music teacher, church organist and choir master. My mum loved singing in choirs. Fifty years on, I am still passionate about it – it gives me a great sense of wellbeing, and deeply enriches my life in so many other ways, which in turn feed into my work as a counsellor.

“There are the recreational and social benefits of meeting friends weekly, and the great feeling of belonging. There is something profoundly life-enhancing about bringing fragments to wholeness, and seeing beauty emerge. And that’s really what makes me passionate about counselling too.”

She hopes the concert raise awareness of PF’s work, as well as raising funds to provide counselling for those on low incomes and pay for ongoing service and development.

Something that feels good promoting something that does good. That’s a great note to end on.

Voices from the Heart, Friday, 8pm, St John’s Church, Edinburgh