Joining a choir the pitch perfect way to improve wellbeing

New research shows that people who sing in choirs report significant higher levels of wellbeing, says Ruth O’Connor.

A music student at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, performing at the University of Limerick as part of the project.

A new body of research announced last week reveals the overwhelmingly positive feeling that people get from singing in choirs — that singing in a choir impacts positively on their physical, social and emotional well being and suggests the potential of choirs to improve wellbeing in settings from nursing homes to educational institutions.

“Sing Yourself Better: the health and well-being benefits of singing” research carried out by Hilary Moss, Jessica O’Donoghue and Julie Lynch at the University of Limerick’s Irish World Academy of Music and Dance is the largest study of singers’ own perceptions of the health benefits of singing in a choir taking in 1,170 respondents from 14 countries including 900 respondents from Ireland.

According to researcher Hilary Moss, who is a music therapist and runs the Music Therapy MA course at the University of Limerick, the findings of the study concluded that “The greatest benefits of singing in a choir came from reducing social isolation; stimulating cognitive function; alleviating low mood and anxiety; improving respiratory function; having fun and relaxing and obtaining a sense of mindfulness and transcendence from everyday worries”.

The study looks at both professional and amateur singers in choirs with the largest group of respondents coming from Ireland and the UK. Ninety percent of those who answered the questions were women and the age range was between 18 and 90 years old. The vast majority of the singers had sung for 10 years or more in choirs.

Hilary Moss has been working with people in the health services using music for about 20 years.

“I decided to do a study of perceptions of people in choirs in Ireland and it just went viral — a pilot study grew legs due to the surprising number of respondents,” she says. “It seemed that people were desperate to tell us how being in a choir impacts their health. I think people are convinced of the benefit and wanted to share it.” The findings were consistent across all ages surveyed, though women reported greater physical, emotional and social benefits than men. Professional singers, perhaps surprisingly, scored more highly than their amateur counterparts. “We looked at the emotional connection, the social connection, the cognitive aspect of learning new songs, the physical aspect and the spiritual aspect of singing in a choir,” says Hilary.

“Our results back up the clinical research. Many respondents said that their breathing was improved which correlates with other research. There has also been clinical research that singing benefits those with depression and some people responding to our survey said that they felt singing in a choir reduced their anxiety and depression.” Hilary and her colleagues questioned respondents about the “spiritual” aspect of singing in a choir too. “It’s hard to put a word on it but there seems to be some type of transcendence coming through in our research — it’s about being part of something bigger than themselves. Also people reported that taking part in the choir was a kind of mindful activity — there is very little research [elsewhere] but anecdotally there was a lot of evidence to support this idea.” Hilary says that the research adds to the growing body of evidence that singing is good for our health and hopes it will encourage more funding for choirs such as those with an emphasis on helping people experiencing mental health issues or dementia and choirs within the workplace. She cites the HSE’s Staff Choir Project as a step in the right direction and says that she would love to see the UK campaign A Choir in Every Care Home rolled out in this country.

Sharon Murphy is a singer and an arts and health practitioner who specialises in working with older people and those with dementia. She speaks with verve about her work with the Past Times Community Choir in Naas, Co. Kildare — a choir which gives a particular welcome to those living with dementia, has 55 members and aims to provide a “warm, stimulating and supportive environment” for all.

Residents from three nursing homes come to The Past Times Community Choir which includes volunteers, active retired people and people living at home with dementia. “Some of the anecdotal evidence we have from speech and occupational therapists states that the mood of people is lifted, that cognitive function and speech may improve short term (for an afternoon for example),” says Sharon. “While the person may not necessarily remember me or remember being there the previous week, they do seem to sense that it is a place where they are comfortable — it is wonderful to see it in action.” The choir uses song sheets but Sharon says that many old songs are deeply embedded in people’s memories too. The choir leaders have also taught members new compositions and they perform regularly. The Past Times Choir is run with the help of Carolann Courtney — Arts and Wellbeing Specialist with Kildare County Council — and Sharon is keen to stress that not every region has a person in a similar role or a choir like Past Times.

“If there isn’t a choir in your area like ours, is there a community choir who will welcome you? If there isn’t anything just start singing at home — print out lyrics and sing with your loved one. Don’t be afraid to use your own voice within the home to encourage your loved one to sing,” she says.

Anecdotal reports from HSE group choirs, such as The Tallaght Hospital Choir, reveal higher morale among staff in very demanding occupations.

Edelle Nolan is the Arts and Health Coordinator at Cork University Hospital where their workplace choir of 30 to 40 people is called “The Scrubs” led by Conductor Patrick Dalton and choir manager Terry Kiely.

“I think the connection between wellbeing and health got lost for some time,” says Edelle. “Thankfully we have scientific research to prove that creativity, as well as aesthetics, impacts on our physical, emotional and mental health. When they map the brain while singing they find that it goes into a pattern which is conducive to healing, similar to meditation. When you are singing you are “active in creativity” so you are giving your body the optimal conditions to thrive.” Edelle says that longitudinal studies also link the health of staff to better outcomes for hospital patients. “One of the initiatives in the HSE at the moment is workplace choirs in the healthcare setting. We know ourselves as choir members that you can be going through anything in your daily work in very demanding and responsible jobs… singing together has lifted the atmosphere in the hospital and you meet people as people not as a job titles.” Alison Baker Kerrigan is Programme Manager at the National Centre for Arts and Health at Tallaght Hospital in Dublin. “From my own point of view through facilitating the running of the choir I have observed the benefits in members and through my own personal experience of being a member of the choir the health benefits are many,” she says.

“It is a wonderful way of clearing your headspace, being aware of controlling your breathing and it encourages you to rehydrate. So that’s three items easily ticked off the daily agenda in looking after oneself. But more importantly, on the days that don’t go so well, meeting up with fellow choir members and singing with them is a great stress reliever,” she says. “Conversations begin between staff whose paths might never otherwise cross and some of the most unlikely friendships are formed. It is clearly apparent that self-esteem and confidence are heightened.”

 


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