Just One Thing…

No, this is not a Columbo tribute – although I am a fan of Peter Falk’s scruffy detective.  This is a Radio 4 series of short 15-minute talks. Dr Michael Mosley, the one who got everybody fasting and doing HIIT, has come up with things we can do to increase our physical and mental wellbeing.  

They are all simple, like getting some sunshine and eating dark chocolate in moderation.  Last week his prescription for health was – hooray! – that we should sing regularly. Singing for five minutes a day improves your mental and physical health. 

There’s already a page on this site sharing some of the research promoting singing for health.  The findings reported in “Just One Thing” are even more extensive, and fascinating.  

Here are three of the research studies quoted in the programme:

  • Anxiety, fear, fatigue and blood pressure were reduced in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy when they listened to live music.  (I’m intrigued by this – is recorded music less effective?)
  • There is evidence that singing boosts your immune system – immunoglobulin A levels were higher when people sang rather than just listening to music. 
  • It can also help people manage chronic pain by stimulating endocannabinoids produced by the body. A study at the University of Nottingham found that after 30 mins of group singing, the level of endocannabinoids in the blood rose by 42%. 

There is a great deal of evidence where people report significant reductions in their symptoms of stress, but science can be sceptical about results that consist of people telling us how they feel.  Immunoglobulin A and endocannabinoids are chemicals which can be measured, analysed and logged in a spreadsheet, proving our physiology is affected by singing.

The special quality of singing together is that it has multiple effects all at once – improving posture, memory, lung function and stimulating reward pathways in the brain, as well as building self-confidence and providing social connections.  

Most people acknowledge that music affects mood, and that listening to, or making, music can improve our mental health.  When we listen to music our bodies tune in to it – the pulse of the music changes our heartrate, blood pressure, and the rate at which we breathe.  These physical changes affect our thoughts and feelings – and the chemical balance in our bodies. 

As Laurence Sterne put it, 

“A man’s body and his mind… are exactly like a jerkin and a jerkin’s lining; rumple the one, you rumple the other.”

Maybe we can see singing as a kind of psychic iron, smoothing out those rumples.

And “rumpled” brings us right back to Lieutenant Columbo!

Singing in the Park Part II

 We’d decided to sing on the flat car park outside Meersbrook Hall.  The barrier is shut at weekends so there wouldn’t be any vehicles there, and opposite the hall there is a grassy slope, just right for sitting on, lending the place an amphitheatre feel.  

I started laying out the coloured cones to show people where to stand, pacing out the gaps. I’d been nervous all day, feeling slightly sick. How would we sound? Would the one bass survive? Would the tenors and sopranos be able to hear each other? Would the occasion get people too excited to concentrate? Would they remember to watch me?  Would my amplifier work? Would I forget the words or steer people wrong?  Would it spoil the balance, or help it, if I sang with the sopranos? I decided I would sing with them if there were only three.  I knew that we would have an audience of at least eight, as well as a couple of choir members who did not feel ready to perform but wanted to listen.

What was it for, this performance? It wasn’t linked to any event. We hadn’t promoted it much, because most of us are still nervous about crowds. It was a date plucked out of the air, and a time designed to maximise participation. I’d just felt we needed something to look forward to, a time and a place to say, “Hey, we’ve learnt some songs!”

I saw the first singer arrive in turquoise and I smiled.  She was happy, excited, wearing something special.  I’d forgotten this feeling. More people arrived, in ones and twos, and greeted each other warmly. The cones were done. My music stand was up, set list anchored to it with a heavy-duty clothes peg (Where were my other pegs? Why did I only have one? On cue, a gust of wind blew across the car park.) The sun peeked out from behind a cloud like a blessing. 

There were singers there who had not made it to a rehearsal for several weeks but had been practising at home, and some who have loyally attended every practice come rain or shine.  This particular group of people had not been all together for a year and a half. It felt like an Occasion.

We were ready. I initiated a little warm-up, for my own benefit as much as anyone else’s, since I’d not done anything vocal all day.  It was still only 4.28: one singer and a couple of expected audience members – including our chairperson, Isobel – had not yet arrived so we sang a few short scales. There was an air of expectation, into which rode Isobel, on the glorious semi-recumbent tandem she shares with her husband.  They waved like royalty, took their seats, and the occasion was officially open.

The singing was everything I’d hoped for – rhythmic, unified, with some lovely light and shade. The richness of harmony in E Malama was particularly gorgeous – it was worth taking the risk of those four-part songs when the number of singers in each part was so unequal. 

We sang for a full half-hour – and for our choir, thirty minutes is a long programme. As we reached the end, I knew that organising this small happening was completely worthwhile.

We were there to celebrate singing, joining together to raise our voices, and being a band – bound together by something that unites us.

Singing in the Park

This is a weird one – I don’t know whether to shout about it or not. On Saturday 11th September we are doing the closest thing to a performance that we have done since December last year. It’s similar to that event, when we sang carols and Christmas songs at the top of Meersbrook Park.

We’ll be singing the songs we have been practising over the last few months. We would like to share them with other people, but I still can’t help feeling that it’s somehow irresponsible to invite a crowd along.

What makes this different from the Christmas sing is that we are planning to sing in harmony, and to sing songs that the audience will not know and join in with. This is more nerve-racking, obviously, more vulnerable, but also very exciting. We’ve always said that performance is not the goal of our choir, and we welcome singers who choose not to perform. Nevertheless, it feels great to have something to work towards, to feel we have a gift to offer people and an occasion to rise to.

We will be standing spread out with our markers, and will keep our distance from any audience (I am quite prepared for there to be no audience, and we will sing anyway!) This makes hearing each other tricky and the sound may suffer, but we hope people will understand. All our Walled Garden rehearsals have helped us get used to singing without being side by side.

If you’d like to come along, we will be singing at the top of the park, near Bishops’ House, at 4.30pm. It won’t be a long programme, not much more than 20 minutes. We look forward to seeing you.

Festival Memories

We’ve been having a clear-out and I have unearthed some musical memorabilia, so this week’s blog is an unashamed trip down memory lane.

I have three certificates from the Newcastle-under-Lyme Music Festival.  They are all from my very early childhood – the first being from 1970, when I was five years old.  There’s a photo somewhere from the local paper, with all the children who played in that “8 years and under” class and the formidable adjudicator, Miss Winifred Law.  I remember the photo but nothing about the event.  

When I was a little girl, a music festival was not Glastonbury, or Latitude, or even Trowbridge Folk Festival.  It was a competition for musicians of all instruments and ages, sometimes including drama classes as well. Festivals were one of the things you did if you had piano lessons. They were taken very seriously. You wore a Sunday-best dress and a ribbon in your hair, and were allowed out of school to compete.  Some people did not go back for the end of the school day but my mother was a stickler and unless it was within ten minutes of the bell, back to school I went.

Newcastle Festival, the most well-established in North Staffordshire, took place in the Walter Moberly Hall at Keele University.  This was a red-brick mid-20th-century building with tall windows down each side and a parquet floor.  Every March it welcomed the parade of children, parents and music teachers who came and played the pieces they had been practising for weeks or months.  We sat on rows of hard metal-legged chairs on the shiny pale wood floor.

I went in for two classes every year. For each age group there was a “Set Piece” class and one called “Own Choice”.  It never was my own choice, of course.  Miss Hughes told me what I was going to play, and it was usually something I was going to play for an exam later that term.

Looking at the certificate when I unearthed it from the filing cabinet in the cellar this month, I noticed the date for the first time.  It’s a very familiar date – because it’s the day my sister 

Alison was born.  I had a sister already, who would have been two. Who took me to Keele? It was about half an hour’s drive from our house.  Mind you, my mother was very matter-of-fact about pregnancy and followed the school of “Carry on as normal till labour starts”. Maybe my sister wasn’t born until the evening. 

All my certificates are the pale blue second-class ones.  First-class certificates were a lovely yellow colour, pale gold almost.  I never got one of those.  I remember seeing them in the hands of a pair of sisters who both had thick, dark blonde plaits. I have an amalgamation of memories from all the years I went there, years of watching the same sisters win the classes I entered.  I didn’t mind.  I had very little concept of performance – I just knew it was harder playing on a different piano in front of lots of people. If I got to the end of my piece and off stage again I was happy, and I waited to get my inevitable blue certificate.

Next week I will stay on this topic and reflect on the place of competition in musical education.

Horse Sense

One episode from this year’s Olympics that has stayed with me is the extraordinary show-jumping competition in the women’s modern pentathlon.  This event involves fencing, swimming, riding, pistol-shooting and cross-country running.  (Ah, fencing, the most modern of sports. In case you’re wondering, there aren’t many British competitors who went to a local state school.)  

Whatever my qualms about its elitism, it is a fascinating competition to watch.  You need a combination of speed and endurance, a steady hand and a clear head, just to complete the final round, where you have to get five shots on target with a laser pistol and then run 800m. Then wipe the sweat out of your eyes and shoot again, and run again – four times in all.

Annika Schleu was way out in front after the fencing and swimming.  Then came the show-jumping.  The athletes are allocated a horse at random.  They have 20 minutes to get to know the animal.  Riders who compete in the purely equestrian events think that a year is a short time to form a bond with their horse.

From the moment they came out, both horse and rider looked tense.  The first four fences went all right, then the horse clattered noisily into the fifth, hardly jumping at all.  Schleu led him to the next and he shied away, refusing to jump. His eyes were wild, and so were hers.  They were both panicking and it was hard to watch.  She tried the approach again. The horse was bigger and stronger and he was determined not to jump.  At one point he even started walking backwards.  Annika Schleu was in tears, sobbing noisily.  She did not manage to complete the round so she ended up with zero points, falling to 31st place.  It was excruciating.

In the studio were two experienced riders, Clare Balding and Samantha Murray (who won silver in 2012 and did not go to a public school).  They had sympathy for Annika, but some comments on how best to handle an unfamiliar horse. 

When I get on a new horse, said Sam, I always sing quietly to it. Horses can’t see you, when you’re riding them. They can only feel you.  If you are tense, they feel that. You need to get rid of that tension.

Clare agreed.  That’s why you hear so many jockeys singing to their horses as they line up at the start, she said.  (Jockeys, of course, ride several highly-strung thoroughbreds in a day.) Singing or humming is great, it’s a quick way of making yourself breathe more slowly and calm down, and the horse can hear it and feel your muscles relax.

What can I say?  Singing can soothe a savage beast. 

We may not all have to deal with large feisty animals but there are other situations where a bit of singing can help you to face a nerve-racking situation.  I’ve used it myself when walking in the dark, and had a “silent sing” in my head when having unpleasant things done under local anaesthetic – it regulates and slows my breathing.

People might be fooled by a tense grin, but animals know when you are stressed.  Singing is a short-cut to loosen the tension. That’s horse sense.

Under a Roof Again

On Monday 2nd August we had our first indoor choir session since the 16th of March 2020.  That is 504 long days since we sang together in a hall.

How did it feel?  It definitely didn’t feel normal.  It is quite different from our rehearsals before the pandemic.

This is a new phase.  We are in a new venue, for a start.  We have chairs and everyone sits or stands in the same place.  We used to start off in a circle and do quite a lot of moving about in the first session, smiling and interacting with the other choir members. It’s harder to connect when everyone is facing the front and looking at the back of people’s heads.

I took everyone’s temperature as they arrived and we scanned or signed ourselves in.  It was exciting but I think everyone felt a tinge of anxiety.

We asked everyone to do a lateral flow test that day – not asking for proof, just requesting it as a courtesy to the group. I loved how many people arrived brandishing either their actual test strip or a picture of it on their phone!

I’d been surprised by how few people signed up for the session.  Back in May we had 20 people on the list. For Monday’s session we only had 14 volunteers, and not all of them came.  One had a nightmare motorway journey and didn’t make it back in time, and as for the other two…

At 5pm I got a phone call from a choir member – one of a couple who were both looking forward to singing that evening, saying “I’ve just done the lateral flow test and it’s positive!”  They didn’t have any of the classic Covid symptoms and were shocked by the result. 

It made me very glad that I’d asked everyone to test. It also reinforced my feeling that there is a lot of Covid about.  Almost everyone I talk to knows someone who either has the virus or is isolating.

The rate of Covid cases in Sheffield this week is 481.1 cases per 100,000. That’s significantly more than the rate for England, which is 283.7.  The evidence supports my impression – there is a lot of it about.  So I am going to carry on being cautious, welcoming people back gradually, and not until they feel ready.  We are planning to sing outside again next week, and on the 23rd, and have one more indoor session on the 16th.  It’s all fluid. There is no “new normal” unless the new normal is that we creep along cautiously, planning only a couple of weeks in advance.  

And the singing? Oh, the singing was glorious.  The blend of voices, wrapped up in the lovely reverberation a good hall gives you, was beautiful.  At times, if I shut my eyes, I would not have known how many individuals were singing, as the sound was so unified.  It is quite different from singing in the garden, where even on a still evening the air whisks our voices away before they can mesh with each other.  

Writing Our Own Map

From next Monday, 19th July, we will be able to meet indoors to sing in a group of more than six.  A whole choir can sing together again without wearing waterproofs.  I’ve been looking forward to this for so long.  So why am I not ecstatic?

Here are the current statistics on Covid.  You can see the numbers for yourself.  Those lines look a bit like smiles – the red smile, the green smile, and that blue lopsided one in the corner.  They are bad news, though, nothing to smile about at all. They show the rising rates of infection, serious illness and death.  

The government has decided to, as they would put it, “grant us our freedom”.  We can now make our own decisions about how close to stand to each other, whether or not to wear a mask, how many people we can squeeze into a venue, and whether to open the windows or not.  

There may be new Performing Arts guidelines coming along – but nobody knows for sure. Maybe they are considered unnecessary.  We will just have to work on “common sense”, which is open to multiple definitions.

Passing the buck, putting the responsibility for decisions on to individual organisers, is predictable behaviour for this government.  Choir directors and committees now have to each plough their lonely furrow, working out for themselves what a safe and responsible rehearsal looks like.

We have a lot of factors to consider.  First and foremost, we want to ensure the safety of our group members.  The science says that singing is no more risky than loud talking, but the simple fact that singing in a big group has been banned makes it seem like a dangerous activity.

People with chronic health conditions are particularly worried about catching the virus.  They will be more vulnerable if existing limitations are scrapped, and many will retreat into a self-imposed isolation, because there are no statutory measures in place to protect them.

I worry that some singers with health issues, or family members whose health is vulnerable, will start to feel that nothing will reassure them.  They will not trust any gathering outside their immediate family to be safe.  This is very sad. 

We are all craving the sound of voices close together.  It is a very different sound, hearing twenty voices, each two metres away from the next, and twenty voices coming from people standing side by side.  The essence of choir is the individual voices blending into one complex sound.  Being outside adds another level of distance between the voices.  If people have come to one outdoor rehearsal and then no more, is it because the musical experience was less than they wanted?  

The bums-on-seats question, of course, is also at play.  We have to have enough people coming to sessions for it to feel like a choir, and for us to pay the room hire and the director’s fees.

For my part, I think we should move forward cautiously.  Hooray to being able to sing indoors again (why does it always rain on Monday evenings?) but when we do, we will still acknowledge that there is a pandemic happening.  

National Anthems

I have divided loyalties when it comes to football.  I’m half-Scottish, married to a Welshman. My first team is Wales and my second team is Scotland.  When I was growing up nobody in my family was interested in sport, except for my Scottish grandpapa.  His first team was Scotland and his second team was whoever was playing against England – especially if they beat them.

I’m not in that camp. I’ve lived in England all my life but I would always call myself British, not English.  However, this incarnation of the English football team has completely won me over. They play for each other, they play as a team, they are modest in victory and resilient in defeat.

I have watched most of the matches in this tournament, and as a choir leader I probably pay more attention to the singing of the anthems than most viewers.  I love some powerful group singing, and I think it says something about a team when they all know the words and sing their anthem confidently.  At the beginning of the tournament I was sure I could see a correlation between strong singing and strong performance on the pitch.  

The Welsh football team sing as loud and proudly as their rugby counterparts, and they played well – to start with.  The Italians are also very good at singing their anthem – which looked and sounded so rousing I had to look it up.

Brothers of Italy, it starts, Italy has awoken… It finishes off with them declaring – twice – that they are ready to die for Italy.

Allons, enfants de la patrie, sing the French.  Come on, children of our homeland, the day of glory is here!

Land of my fathers, land of warriors, poets and singers, great people who have shed their blood for freedom… Land! Land! I am true to my land.

There is a beautiful country, sing the Danes, where the beech trees spread wide by the salt eastern shores…  this is Freya’s hall, where ancient warriors rest.

I’m starting to see a pattern here. Most national anthems involve people singing about the land they inhabit, or about their links to past generations of the country, ancestors, heroes and warriors, inciting a feeling of camaraderie with other people of that nation.

Compared to that, the English have a rough deal.  I have a problem with England using the British national anthem as their own, since it should belong equally to the four home nations, but in addition to that it’s a poor anthem.

Instead of singing about their country, and a feeling of belonging to either a nation – a physical land, or an ideal – or a brotherhood, they are asking God to look after the queen. I’ve nothing against the queen, but the words of our national anthem don’t commit us to taking any action. We don’t commit ourselves to each other or our homeland, we just say a prayer for an old lady.  I wish they would sing Jerusalem instead – the old radical Blake’s words are stirring, and specifically about England, although I’d prefer something without religious affiliations.

Sadly, the correlation I observed didn’t last beyond the group stages.  Before their match with Denmark, Wales sang as well as ever.  Denmark didn’t sing particularly strongly and they won 4-0.  

Whatever the outcome on the field, singing a song together is one more way to pledge allegiance to your team and country. I wish England had a better tune and better words!

Choir and the Secret of Happiness

I am not going to claim that singing in a choir will bring you back from deep despair.  It will not mend your broken heart.  But I whole-heartedly believe that choir is a very good thing and it nurtures our mental health.

In many small ways, choir helps our mental health, starting with the physical body.  Breathing more deeply and taking some gentle exercise are always recommended. (As is spending time outside, so we can help there – at the moment!)

We know anecdotally that our singers say, “I need choir for my mental health”, or “I think choir should be available on the NHS,” but there is plenty of solid psychological research that supports this view.

Self-determination is a concept which is important for psychological growth – it’s about being able to make your own choices and feel in control of your life.  According to self-determination theory, what people need to be motivated is a simple ABC.  The three things that inspire people to do things are Autonomy, Belonging and Competence.

I know, long words.  What they mean is not too complicated, though. Autonomy means the feeling that you are choosing to do something, and that thing makes a difference.  You choose to open your mouth and sing, and the sound of the choir is transformed. How you sing is up to you – loudly, sweetly, in an Irish accent – and your effect on the whole sound is audible.  Without your contribution, the sound is diminished.

Belonging is a more straightforward word.  It is really important for human beings to feel that they are part of something bigger.  We all need to feel connected to others.  When we are bound together with other people in a shared endeavour, a shared work of art like a choir song, we feel close to the singers nearby even if we’ve never had a conversation with them. 

Competence means knowing how to do stuff.  We feel safe with people who are good at what they do.  Learning to do things better gives us self-esteem.  When we start learning a song in choir and you think, I’m never going to learn that, and then you do, it feels good.   Developing new skills makes us feel powerful.  

If, as a leader, I can help you feel these three things – autonomy, belonging and competence – I will be doing something right in my job.  You don’t need to label them in this way, I’m just making a connection with an established psychological theory.

All that our singers need to know is that 

You Belong

You Can Sing

Your Singing Matters

Start Singing!

The Rights and Wrongs of Singing in June 2021

Tonight we will be singing at the Walled Garden again.  I’m looking forward to it, and I’m less nervous than I was before the first session, but it’s colder today.  There is a chilly wind blowing and despite the chance of precipitation being only about 9%, it’s been raining gently for most of the afternoon.  We’ll be OK, everybody will wear the right clothes and the garden will smell particularly lovely as a wet garden does, but it’s brought back my feeling of deep injustice.

Every afternoon and evening on TV we’re seeing football fans singing enthusiastically together, arms draped round the shoulders of people I’m pretty sure they don’t live with.  We’re talking about thousands of people here – I think they estimated 22,000 people came down from Scotland to London for the England game.  They were shouting and singing and hugging, and nobody stopped them.

But non-professional choirs still cannot sing indoors, standing still, not facing each other, 2m away from the next person, with all the windows open.

Some choirs who charge money for tickets and employ professional soloists have had it confirmed that (in the view of their insurance company) that makes them a professional outfit, and I’m delighted that they can now proceed with indoor rehearsals.  Sadly, that doesn’t include us.

I was talking to my stepmother last night and at her Methodist church they have decided it’s time to start singing again.  Their minister said that the mostly elderly congregation have all been vaccinated, and that the impact on their mental health was important enough to override the guidelines.  Everyone wears masks and they sing softly together in the chapel, and it makes a huge difference to the feel of the service.  This seems a considered and kind decision – but it contravenes the guidelines.  

My father’s Church of England church is still not including singing in their services.  Like us, they are going to follow the guidance even when it seems illogical.

I do get irate about people feeling entitled to break the rules, because they feel their situation is special and more important than other people’s.  I don’t want to be part of the Cummings crew.  I had a wonderful indoor sing with five choir people last week, and we will be happy enough with our group of 30 in the walled garden for the next four weeks.  What happens then is, I realise, anyone’s guess.

But as I print off a copy of Singing in the Rain – just in case it seems appropriate – and put on an extra jumper, I can’t help feeling that life is unfair.