Mei Har Rundle was 54-years-old, and had been a housewife for years, when she decided to join a choir. Little did she realise how much her life would change from it.
“I was very shy. I didn’t want to go anywhere. So, from the choir, I’ve done recording, I’ve sang in front of big crowds, I’ve sang in front of thousands of people. So, I wasn’t scared.”
It’s been seven years and Mei Har says she’s enjoyed every moment in the choir.
“Because we tend to, you know, keep us everything inside, and when we sing, we’re more happy, and we really let our voice heard, and singing really relaxes us, and it really connects us with everybody.” - Mei Har Rundle, Mixed Beans Multicultural Choir member
Mei Har is part of the Mixed Beans Multicultural Choir based in Australia’s most ethnically diverse city of Logan in Queensland. The choir is run by local singer Cath Mundy and meets every Tuesday afternoon at Beenleigh library.
“Because a lot of people, when they first come to live in Australia, come into Logan, and they come into the library, they’re looking for some assistance, they’re looking for connections, they want to learn English, they want some help with getting to know people and what’s available in their communities.”
So the library thought it would be a great idea to get people singing together and start a choir with a multicultural focus.
“To encourage people, who do come from non-English speaking backgrounds, and different cultural backgrounds, to come together, and connect with others. Really, a good opportunity for people who are already here, the locals, to get to know the new locals, the new people, who are moving in.”
Choir members have come from around the world.
“I’m originally from Fiji, and I joined the choir because I need to belong to the community and to network.”
This is 58-year-old Kenneth Zinck’s fifth year in Australia. After suffering from a stroke last year, he decided to join the choir as part of his rehabilitation.
“Joining the choir, I meet so many friends, and knowing Australians, and knowing all sorts of races, which is great to meet in a social atmosphere like this choir that we have.”
Dr Jane Southcott is an associate professor at Monash University’s Faculty of Education. In her extensive research on community music, positive ageing and multiculturalism, she’s noticed that choir memberships can help older immigrants establish a sense of community and overcome social isolation. She refers to a Chinese older women’s choir in Victoria.
"Choir memberships can help older immigrants establish a sense of community and overcome social isolation." - Dr Jane Southcott, associate professor, Monash University
“For example, parents joining their children, who have busy working lives in Australia, and they have grandchildren, who go to school. Their first language is not necessarily always spoken in the home, so often, these women come here to be with their family, but their family is very busy, and, so, to find a group of people they can spend time with, who speak the same language, have shared common experiences, is a liberating and enlivening activity, because, otherwise, they’re just at sitting home by themselves, waiting for people to come home.”
A choir singer herself, Dr Jane Southcott understands firsthand the power of singing in a group to help people age better.
“There’s quite a lot of research that proves singing with a group of people just actually makes you happier and it offers them a sense of still feeling useful.”
At the Mixed Beans Choir, Cath Mundy is teaching the members to sing a new Spanish song.
“A person would come along to choir, and we’d say, ‘Oh, whereabouts are you from?’ And they might say, I’m from Fiji. We’d say, oh well, that’s great! We’ve never had anyone join us from Fiji before; maybe you could teach us a song?’ We’ve just ended up with a rich organic multilingual repertoire which is quite unusual and unique.”
The choir members started learning one foreign song at a time. Nowadays, they sing in 30 different languages. Mei Har says learning foreign songs activate her thinking and memory skills.
“I shock myself because learning to sing is different from learning to read. It’s this music help me to remember the words and 30 different songs of 30 different languages, I surprise myself, I remember the words without looking at the song sheets.”
A former choir leader in Fiji, singing in different languages is a new experience for Kenneth Zinck.
“It was challenging because I had to learn Japanese. When they said, ‘Right, this is Japanese song,’ and for a Fijian, it’s fantastic, you know. I think it’s a new challenge and it’s great to sing Japanese and all sorts…singing in French, or Latin, or Italian. So, these are new things that we never tried in Fiji.”
"Singing can also improve the holistic wellbeing - particularly for older people who may feel like they’re slowing down and starting to lose the ability to do certain things in life." - Cathy Mundy, Mixed Beans Multicultural Choir director
“We’re very physical when we sing. Our bodies are our instrument. So I get people up and moving. They get to learn how to move in rhythm, keeping the beat, and then learning how to use their voice, and use their lungs and all the muscles that are engaged by that.”
Now 61, Mei Har says she can no longer imagine a life without the choir she calls her ‘precious pearl’.
“I love music but I couldn’t sing but my conductor said, ‘if you can talk, you can sing’, so anybody can join the choir, so don’t be scared people, don’t be scared. So, just join the choir and be happy!”
This immense sense of joy is scientifically proven according to a 2013 paper published in Frontiers in Psychology. Choir conductor Cath Mundy agrees that you achieve more positive results when singing with others.
“The evidence is there, they’ve seen that when choir members sing together, they start to synchronise their heartbeats, they start to synchronise their breathing, and they start to feel more connected to each other as a result, and you see communities start to form. So, if you’re a person experiencing isolation or loneliness, and a lot of older people do, then you’re combatting that. By going and singing with other people, you’re starting to feel connected to a new community and you make new friends!”