Last September I was hit by the autumn blues. What to do, I wondered? On impulse, I decided to sign up for the company choir, the Mag-nificents. And so one blustery evening I found myself walking across town with decidedly cold feet. What on earth had possessed me to do this, I panicked, as I drew closer to the venue. I hadn’t sung in a choir since performing ‘I Feel Pretty’ from West Side Story as a stroppy 14-year-old alto with too much eyeliner. It had been bad enough being humiliated by Miss Anderson, who presided over our school choir, but imagine looking like an idiot in front of your colleagues.
As it happened I needn’t have worried. I soon discovered that everyone was pretty much in the same boat. Our musical director Hilary, a postgraduate student of choral conducting, was a million miles away from the terrifying school music teacher. When the hour-long session was over, I noticed that I was in an inexplicably good mood. ‘He who sings, scares away his woes,’ said Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes, and he wasn’t wrong. It was this guaranteed singer’s high that kept me going back, through all the dismal autumn and winter evenings, even though I was way out of my comfort zone.
There was something else too – singing in a group provided a rare opportunity to connect with other people through a shared activity. It made me realise how much of my social life revolved around either talking – over a drink, or a meal – or spectating, at the cinema or a live event. Getting to know people through the act of standing next to them and trying to keep in time and in tune was a great experience. Singing is an activity that requires you to be 100 per cent present. When you’re focusing on controlling breathing, keeping time and carrying a melody, you don’t really have any mental space left for stressing about your latest work or romantic mini-drama.
There is something about singing in a group that creates a great deal more than musical harmony. Some of it is physiological – researchers from the University of Manchester discovered that there’s a tiny organ in the inner ear that responds to the frequencies generated by singing and is connected to the part of the brain responsible for registering pleasure. So you get immediate pleasure when you sing, regardless of what it sounds like to anyone else. Then there are what musician Brian Eno describes as ‘civilisational benefits’ too. ‘When you sing with a group of people you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings: to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.’
There is also the unexpected thrill of performing in public. I was unprepared for how addictive this would be, from the intensity of rehearsals, to that giggly split-second of stage fright before a gig. When members of the audience tell you afterwards how much they’ve enjoyed your performance, it’s a reminder that you’re not only singing for fun, or to feel better, but that you’re part of something bigger, and you’re creating something for others to enjoy. Being part of a choir has changed me. It has been a confidence booster to feel needed, that my voice makes a difference, albeit a small one. Most significantly, I am now far more comfortable about making mistakes and laughing at myself when I get it wrong. In singing there is no ‘almost’ right, or arguing your way out of it. You’re either singing the right note or you’re not. But in the end, it isn’t really about singing perfectly, it is more that you make the effort to sing at all.