‘I Don’t Sing Because I’m Happy, I’m Happy Because I Sing’

Today’s title is a quote by the psychologist William James (1842-1910), in which he foreshadows the current interest in singing for psychological wellbeing. Singing to improve our mood has a long history, and seems to be an instinctive response which can help us to deal with emotionally difficult situations. On May 17th 2018 The Telegraph published a reader’s memories of wartime nights spent in an air-raid shelter:

‘At first we just sat on the benches, wearing our gas masks, for what seemed like hours at a time. Then the headmaster decided that singing would help morale – “White Cliffs of Dover”, “There’ll Always Be an England” (!!) and “Roll Out the Barrel”. I can still remember the words. I suppose in retrospect there was not very much else the headmaster could do. He knew we were afraid in case we found our homes and families had been destroyed in our absence – sadly, in some cases, that was a fact’.

Even if singing is the last thing we feel like doing, it can help to lift our spirits, as the English clergyman, Charles Spurgeon, discovered: ‘Sometimes, if you begin to sing in a halfhearted mood, you can sing yourself up the ladder. Singing will often make the heart rise’

When I was very young, I got up early one morning and found my grandmother in the kitchen, singing as if her life depended on it. ‘You must be happy today’, I innocently stated. ‘I’m not happy at all,’ she snapped, ‘That’s why I’m singing – to make myself feel better!’ I never found out why this was necessary on that particular day, but grandma’s pragmatic response to her bad mood was a useful lesson for me.

Immersing ourselves in singing works as a mood enhancer partly because it creates a state of ‘flow’* or ‘being in the zone’. A ‘flow’ activity has its own intrinsic rewards and is enjoyable for its own sake.  It is totally absorbing and makes us concentrate on the present moment. Achieving a state of ‘flow’ can help us to shake off our usual self-consciousness, and to fully experience the high points in our life, sometimes referred to as ‘peak’ or ‘optimal’ experiences’. ‘Flow’ can distract us from our everyday concerns to the extent that we lose track of time (and everything else!) as the jazz singer, Sarah Vaughan found: ‘When I sing, trouble can sit right on my shoulder and I don’t even notice’.

Yesterday, the mother of one of my singing students told me that her daughter ‘always enjoys your lessons. Sometimes I send in a moody teenager and she comes out smiling and happy’. And hearing that made me feel happy too!

Further Reading:

*More information about Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’ can be found here









Singing Together for Wellbeing

Last night I conducted a concert with the Radcliffe on Trent Male Voice Choir at Bingham in Nottinghamshire. Our current theme song is ‘Stout Hearted Men’ from ‘New Moon’, which was one of the first musicals that my mother took me to see at the theatre. One of my favourite lines in the song is ‘Hearts can inspire other hearts with their fire’, and the gentlemen of the choir are among my main sources of inspiration at the moment.

As I rapidly approach a significant birthday, I have been constantly looking for good examples of healthy aging, and I am now fortunate enough to be surrounded by positive role models in the male voice choir. The youngest members are in their mid-sixties, and the rest are mainly in their seventies and eighties. Two of our singers have recently celebrated their ninetieth birthdays, which makes my approaching landmark seem comparatively modest.

After telling last night’s audience about the singers’ longevity, I realised that I had possibly delivered a slight insult to our younger members when I added ‘…And I defy you to work out which of the men are the ninety-year olds!’ Of course, I meant that it is quite difficult to identify the most senior singers, as they look so well and continue to make such a strong contribution to the choir.

Radcliffe on Trent Male Voice Choir
A Great Advertisement for Singing and Wellbeing!

The longest-standing members of this group have over 250 songs in their repertoire (not including their Christmas songs), and pride themselves on performing everything from memory. Post-performance celebrations in the pub are often enlivened by spontaneous renditions of old favourites, such as ‘The Rhythm of Life’ and ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, as many of the singers can (and do!) perform these items with very little persuasion. Newer members quickly learn to catch up by memorising the songs for each concert.

The choir operates as a learning community, with more experienced members of the choir mentoring new recruits, making sure they have everything they need (sheet music, choir uniform, performance directions etc.) and helping them to get up to speed with the music. Often I look around and see one of the basses discreetly gesturing to his neighbour to indicate where the pitch goes up and down. On other occasions, I might see one of the tenors helping his colleague to work out which verse we are singing, or a baritone quietly explaining the ‘map reading’ for those who hadn’t noticed a repeat mark or coda.

The singers’ collaborative approach to learning and performing extends into their social life, as they have a healthy relationship with the local pub, and many of them keep in touch outside rehearsals. Some of the gentlemen sail together, meet to play golf or bowls, belong to other networking organizations, or simply visit and support each other in times of need. There is a strong sense of community within the choir, and the singers also play an active role in the wider community. They arrange collaborative performances with local schools and colleges, provide opportunities for young soloists to perform in their concerts, and are constantly fundraising for local and national charities.

All of this means that this group of singers, like many other choirs, are a very powerful advertisement for the wellbeing effects of singing. Their physical wellbeing benefits from the good posture, deep breathing and general relaxation necessary for healthy vocal production, while their cognitive skills remain sharp due to the constant need to learn, revise and memorise their words and music. Their social wellbeing is enhanced by their own supportive community and their valuable contributions to the wider community.

Our plans for this year include an open day to enable newcomers to gain first-hand experience of the wellbeing benefits of singing together. This will take place on Saturday 17th March at Lutterell Hall  in West Bridgford, starting at 10 am and finishing at around 4 pm.  Participation is not dependent upon vocal skill or musical training, and male singers of all ages and abilities will be welcome.

The open day will start with a short presentation on some of the ways of accessing the benefits of singing and making the most of our voices. Practical workshops will then help new singers to learn how to use their breath efficiently for relaxation and optimum performance, to explore their voices, to take part in musical team building activities, and to have fun singing in harmony with other people. The event will finish with a brief ‘show and tell’ session at which we will perform our songs to a select audience of friends and family – by invitation only! There will also be opportunities to socialise and to hear the gentlemen of the choir demonstrate some of their current repertoire.

For further information about the choir and this event, see the Radcliffe on Trent Male Voice Choir website here.