The therapeutic harmony found in joining a choral group

MOVE over yoga — communal singing is the new activity taking centre stage, offering therapeutic benefits and stretching more than those vocal chords,for a growing number of older people in Ireland.

Organisers of Irish choral groups estimate that at least half of participants are aged over 50 and that the mental and physical benefits from singing in harmony, aside from the social plus of meeting new people, makes it a mood-enhancing experience for those who partake.

And there’s growing research to support this. Last year a Swedish study, ‘The Body’s Musical Score’, found that singing together influenced the heart rate of choir members and had a calming positive effect.

Musicologist Bjorn Vickhoff who led the study found not only did the singers’ hearts rates slow down, but their heartbeats gradually synchronised, eventually beating as one, guided by the music’s melody and structure.

“Singing regulates activity in the so-called vagus nerve, which is involved in our emotional life and our communication with others,” he said. “Songs with long phrases achieve the same effect as breathing exercises in yoga. In other words, through song, we can exercise a certain control over mental states.”

“We already know that choral singing synchronises the singers’ muscular movements and neural activities in large parts of the body,” he said. “Now we also know that this applies to the heart, to a large extent”.

This is no surprise to Yvonne McDonald, who co-founded CÓRus with Mary Lowe three years ago to run fun choir classes for adults who don’t want to do high end singing or don’t have very developed voices.

Currently boasting 18 choirs with more than 650 members, she says members continually talk about the buzz they get from singing together.

“We hear all the time that it’s like therapy, that people feel uplifted and energised — it’s the experience of being in a room singing in harmony”.

But bonding also goes beyond singing in unison. With at least half of members over 50, McDonald says lots of friendships are made. “We have widows, widowers, separated people who find similar minded people — the benefits go far beyond the singing”.

Staying mentally alert is another bonus for older people, she says. “They have to learn lyrics and this helps keep their memory and retention skills sharp. As well as that, the voice becomes lower as we age and singing keeps the vocal tones up.”

Mary Jennings, who organises community singing workshops in Dublin, attracting mostly those over the age of 45, has also noticed how “people get a real buzz from singing in harmony” and how shyer participants who start off singing with a group of strangers, open up throughout the weekend, as a result of the bonding experience.

Meanwhile, the chief executive of the Association of Irish Choirs, Dermot O’Callaghan, says older members often comment that their self-esteem increases and their emotional and physical wellbeing is enhanced when they are involved in choral activity.

“There are a large number of people — probably 50% per cent — in the 50 plus bracket that sing in choirs in Ireland and the engagement of the active retirement community in choral singing is growing all the time, ” he says.

“Any choir member will testify how on occasion a bad mood has been lifted after attending a choir rehearsal. And there are many physical benefits that include better posture, stronger stomach muscles and toned facial muscles — to name but a few.”

Research at the University of Frankfurt also found immune system benefits, he says.

The US Journal of Behavioral Medicine reported that blood samples taken from choir members before and after they sang, found raised levels of immunoglobulin A and cortisol. Their blood composition was unaffected when the participants listened to the music.

This could well be the case at the Cork International Choral Festival currently in full swing until Sunday night.

And for the 650 CÓRus participants at the end- of- year concert in the RDS on May 29 in aid of Pieta House.

Even for the audience the sight and sound is a mood-lifter so get out and catch that buzz!

* www.CÓ


* For community singing workshops



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