Lift Up Your Hearts and Sing

Choirs have sprung up everywhere as we begin to understand the healing power of the voice

Jessica Duchen

How many times have you heard friends remark, “I can’t sing to save my life”? And yet singing is the most natural form of music-making in existence. There is song in every society. Mothers sing to their babies to quieten them. Celebrations usually call for singing en masse. Acts of worship involve the songful use of the voice, whether in an imam’s call to prayer, a synagogue cantor or a church congregation tackling hymns. And whether your preference is for pop, classical, jazz or world music, you’ll find singing at its core, the most significant and accessible force that music can have. 

It has become clear that the benefits of music, and especially singing, run far deeper than we’d thought. Singing is not only instinctive: it is also healthy. Its gifts to each of us, should we choose to do it, can include increased oxygen circulation through better breathing techniques, pain relief (yes, seriously), and improvement in conditions such as asthma. And that’s before you add the resulting greater confidence, enhanced communicative abilities and better energy levels. Among the elderly, singing has been shown to improve eyesight, inspire patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and slow the ageing of the voice itself. 

Can’t sing? Won’t sing? There’s been a general shift in Western society from the active to the passive. Many of us now assume that most things are done for us by someone else, probably “experts”. Collectively, we’ve become observers, not participants, consumers, not creators. We expect others to care for our children and our elderly parents. We watch sport and music rather than expend effort to take part in it. If we become obese, we might sue fast-food companies rather than taking responsibility for our own health. No wonder we expect others to sing but can’t do it ourselves “to save our lives”. 

Yet that’s exactly what singing can do. Researching the healing powers of music generally, and singing in particular, for my novel Songs of Triumphant Love, a story about an opera singer who is losing her voice, I was amazed to learn just how extensive the health benefits of singing really are, both physically and mentally. And recently these effects have been making ever larger waves. 

Part of the rift between people and music-making was the sorry result of the way music was virtually wiped out of many UK schools during the Thatcher years. But now a major drive is in place that aims to introduce singing to every child in the country. In 2004, the government introduced a Music Manifesto to ensure the availability of good musical education — it is now in the control of a voluntary and apolitical “partnership and advocacy” group. In 2007, it initiated a £40 million campaign called Sing Up, a national programme that sought to place singing at the heart of primary schools. Singing, it declares, can “transform children’s lives”. Perhaps most importantly, the campaign’s initiative “Vocal Force” trains teachers to work in singing with primary school children, since their teachers have long lacked the basic musical training they need to bring satisfactory music-making to their classrooms. They also work closely with the excellent Voices Foundation, which has a mission “to enable all children to realise their full potential through a singing-based music curriculum, and to influence national perception of the vital importance of music in education”.

It’s not only children’s lives that can be transformed by singing. In Guildford, a remarkable woman, Caroline Redman Lusher, has started a new craze that has been sweeping the country: Rock Choir, which was reported on BBC Breakfast News several months ago and offers pop, gospel and Motown singing to children, teenagers and adults. The cathartic nature of singing has come into focus as the credit crunch bites. Rock choirs across the country are packed. Some companies, like the embattled Swiss banking giant UBS, have started choirs of their own. The reason? It’s a powerful way to let off steam and lift the spirits.

Singing is a great leveller. Choirs — rock and otherwise — are essentially inclusive, with participants ranging from stay-at-home mums to members of the House of Lords. They bring people together to share an experience that takes you out of yourself and makes you feel connected to those around you. Anybody can sing, whatever their background or circumstances. One of today’s finest Wagnerian singers, Lisa Gasteen, started off working for her family’s dry-cleaning firm in Australia. The soprano Angela Gheorghiu hails from small-town Romania, where her parents were a train driver and a dressmaker. And witness the way that the voice of an unlikely woman from Blackburn, West Lothian, has transformed her — Susan Boyle — into the most downloaded singer to date. 

Nothing non-competitive can attract a large and disparate crowd of people as strongly as music. Therefore there’s nothing better to raise money, support and awareness for good causes. Charity concerts by the world’s top rock stars have periodically drawn a huge amount of attention. The most famous example was Band Aid back in 1984, but more recently Annie Lennox founded her SING campaign to raise awareness of Aids in Africa, inspired to do so when she heard Nelson Mandela describe it as “genocide”. She is just the latest to embrace the power that song has to unite, to help and, sometimes, to heal. 

The effect of music on mind, body and spirit is not just woolly, new-age stuff, but scientifically proven. In August, the chamber music group The Nash Ensemble undertook a residency in Windsor with the composer and music therapy pioneer Nigel Osborne, devoted to that very subject. Supported by the Wellcome Trust, the series “Music and the Brain” included talks, discussions and concerts exploring science that identifies how musical experience “builds the brain” and contributes to human and societal development. Osborne’s work in music therapy in Bosnia during the siege of Sarajevo proved the power of music beyond doubt: he showed that it can reach traumatised children and help them to communicate, adding immeasurably to the healing process. 

Music as a whole — but especially singing — has been extraordinarily undervalued for the past half-century, morphing into a commodity instead of an activity. That discrepancy needs to be tackled, for countless reasons; perhaps proving its benefits to physical and mental health can become a strong argument in its favour. After all, when we give it a chance, singing is still the most natural thing in the world.

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