The large, airy room echoes with our combined voices, swelling and rising to crescendo. I haven’t felt this happy in a long while. We smile at each other - friends, strangers, sopranos, altos, tenors - across our 1.5 metre or more distances, as we begin another song, learning harmonies together, stumbling, mastering them in thrilling unity. Aptly, the song we’re learning today is Lean On Me. We're locals: some know each other, some are new, but we all feel a sense of belonging as soon as we start to sing.
I live in south-east Queensland, in the hinterland twenty minutes from Noosa. The virus in our state has been contained to only four cases (at time of writing) due to local and international border closures and extensive community testing. Unlike the state of Victoria, particularly Melbourne, and in other hotspots around the world, Queensland hasn’t felt much different to pre-Covid times. Masks are not mandatory, and we're now allowed indoor and outdoor gatherings of up to 40 people.
Singing in choirs has been frowned upon since March this year, deemed by some scientists to be in the category of ‘super-spreading’ gatherings. Thus, the rise of virtual Zoom choirs such as The Sofa Singers and Livefullness Live. Yet now that restrictions are easing across Australia, an in-real-life choir is a boon to any community.
Joining a choir is something I haven’t done since high school, when I was part of of a mixed school group performing at Sydney's Opera House and Town Hall.
Joining a choir is something I haven’t done since high school, when I was part of of a mixed school group performing at Sydney's Opera House and Town Hall. We belted out big hits from Les Miserables and got through the whole of Handel’s glorious Messiah. Since then, I’ve always felt a longing to return to that unique type of togetherness, cooperation and joy that comes from making something beautiful together
When I sing with others, I feel the strength of banding together in times of uncertainty and change. There have been days this past year where I have felt little hope for ours or our planet's survival. Last November my five-acre property in the hinterland was engulfed by bushfires and the looming threat of the coming fire season keeps me awake at night. Climate catastrophe, political chaos and social unrest adds to my nagging dread. The ten-year anniversary of my sister’s death passed last week, and I battle with a low-level anxiety that the same cancer I share with her may come back.
Yet when I’m at choir, all that falls away.
Much like meditation and yoga, choral singing and chanting has been shown to have multiple emotional, psychological and physical benefits, such as lowering stress levels, reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression and alleviating loneliness by engendering a feeling of social closeness. Singing, particularly with others, lowers the stress hormones cortisol and cortisone, as well as raising our levels of oxytocin, the social bonding or ‘love hormone’ that is secreted when we hug someone or when women breastfeed.
Choral singing ameliorates the autonomic nervous system by reducing our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism, improves vagal nerve tone and activates the parasympathetic response. It regulates our heart rate, improves lung capacity and a small joint study in 2008 by Harvard and Yale Universities (often quoted but elusive to find) even showed that choral singing improved life expectancy for respondents in rural Connecticut.
Choir is a weekly ritual that becomes magic when our voices are raised in the same song, when something affirming and deeply human emerges from our combined efforts. We look into each others’ eyes and trust each other. It’s something intensely primal, this moment, and I think of our early ancestors celebrating, mourning, facing adversity together through song.
Choir is a weekly ritual that becomes magic when our voices are raised in the same song, when something affirming and deeply human emerges from our combined efforts.
The shift that happens as I enter the room and start singing with the others is a departure from ‘I’ to ‘we,’ from my individual self to a welcoming world of non-judgement and unconditional friendship. The magic lies in the strengthening of our interconnection, our sensitivity to each other’s subtle changes in pitch, sound level, breath, silence. For a brief time, we’ve become one. And that in itself is both important and profoundly healing in these divisive times.
For me, choir is addictive. In the same way I had a lump in my throat watching people sing from their balconies in locked-down cities at the start of Covid, a real-life choir makes my heart sing.
And sing my heart out I do.