Want to make your heart sing and keep your wellbeing in tune? Then join a choir. Helen McGurk talks to those who know how special it is to be part of a group making music.
From the outside, choirs may seem comfy, middle-aged and, well, a bit unhip, but there is much more to it than a group of people harmonising on Stand by Me.
Many of us will look back fondly on our days in a school choir; the rehearsals, an oddly transporting highlight of the week, which gave us a temporary release from the stresses of revising for exams and other adolescent anxieties. There was also the sense of connectedness, the friendships and, corny as it may sound, the sheer joy.
For many choirs a polished performance is more of an extra bonus, rather than its raison d’etre.
Singing in a group is a perfect case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts - a choir can sound far better than it’s individual members’ singing ability; there will always be a few warblers among the nightingales, but that doesn’t matter.
Like meditation, singing is about being in the here and now - it fills your mind and there’s no room for anything else. Acclaimed musician and composer Brian Eno, put it this way: “When you sing with a group, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness … That’s one of the great feelings – to stop being me for a little while and become us.”
Gemma-Louise Bond knows the exhilaration of singing in a choir.
The well-known blogger, That Belfast Girl, is a member of the Belfast Community Gospel Choir, Northern Ireland’s first and only multicultural gospel choir, which is much sought-after due to its dynamic performances, which are charged with joy, passion and energy.
‘‘I love it because it’s so fun and exciting!,’’ she says.
‘‘We have toured in America and that’s always incredible. I have sung since I was five and did classical singing throughout my teens, but gospel is so uplifting and good for the soul. I joined when I was 19 in 2011 so I’ve been there a long time. I wanted an outlet for singing that would bring me joy.’’
More and more of us seem to be taking the musical plunge. Helped by the influence of television choirmaster Gareth Malone, there are dozens of choirs across Northern Ireland, including those to help rehabilitate people with mental health problems and other conditions.
A recent two-part series for BBC One, Our Dementia Choir with Vicky McClure, illustrated, so poignantly, the magic of music.
The Line of Duty actor, whose grandmother had the condition, brought together a 20-strong group of people with different types of dementia, from McClure’s home town of Nottingham, to form a choir that will give a public performance in a 2,000-seater venue in three months’ time.
The series showed the power of music and friendship. One woman, Julie, had never sung in public before and after weeks of rehearsal remained nervous. “I’ll mother you,” said Betty, putting an arm around her. “You do put yourself down! We’re great friends,” she explained to the camera. “And we’ve only met today!”
Kirsty Orr, musical director of Lisburn Harmony Ladies Choir, has also seen the difference being in a group has made to people’s lives.
‘‘A lot of women would describe it to me as their therapy - they just need it go get through the rest of the week and it’s something they look forward to.
‘‘Just recently someone said to me they had forgotten how joyous it is to sing with other people in a choir.
‘‘It is also a very good way of forgetting what else is going on, because there is a degree of concentration required to sing your part, to follow along, to remember your harmonies. It’s an opportunity for people to switch off and not think about any stresses which are annoying them.’’
Kirsty adds that the social aspect is also very important to its members.
‘‘They describe the choir as a family, and I would say that it is an incredibly supportive group of women that we have managed to get together.
‘‘We have seen people through really serious illnesses, bereavements, divorces and other life-changing events and they are still there and they are still coming back.’’
There are some 130 members in the Lisburn Harmony Ladies Choir, with one, a performing choir, which meets once a week, and another one which meets monthly and which Kirsty describes as being ‘‘very much aimed at positive mental health and purely for good craic.’’
Kirsty says the music spans all genres from gospel, to folk to pop songs by Ed Sheeran and ‘‘everything in between’’.
Lisburn Harmony is 10 years old next year and Kirsty is currently working on a Musical Memories programme.
‘‘We hope to take singing in a choir into every nursing home in Lisburn. I am currently training members of the choir who can then lead these choirs in the nursing homes, for people with dementia and other conditions.’’
Kirsty has worked with the Alzheimer’s Society and knows the power music has for people with dementia.
‘‘The part of the brain where music is stored is the least affected for the longest period of time, which is why people can remember how to sing a song they learned whenever they were a child, but they can’t remember their own name.
‘‘I love watching people’s faces and seeing them light up as the music comes out.’’
Gerardine Mulvenna, alderman for Mid and East Antrim Council and a passionate dementia champion, set up the This is Me choir in Larne last year - an initiative which has been a tremendous success and has a personal resonance as Gerardine’s mother had dementia.
On average 25 people take part in the weekly rehearsals at the The Music Yard in Larne and there are plans for a concert at some stage.
Gerardine explains: ‘‘The choir is for people with dementia and their carers or a member of their family, but we also extend it out to other people, those experiencing loneliness, widowed people and the vulnerable.’’
Watching the choir, Gerardine admits it regularly brings a tear to her eye.
‘‘Some people with dementia who cannot communicate just burst into song and remember old ballads.
‘‘It’s incredible to watch. They become alive when they’re singing - the power of music unlocks their brain and, for me, it’s the joy of seeing them enjoying it - their laughs and their giggles. But also to see the positive effect it has on their carers and family, they also really enjoy it - it’s a release for them.’’
And Gerardine says it doesn’t matter if you can, or can’t, hold a tune.
‘‘It’s about the joy of joining in. There’s the whole social aspect.
‘‘A lot of these people have been meeting since last year. We do the choir for an hour and then we have tea and coffee afterwards and they could be sitting there for another hour chatting - it’s a great bond and friendship.
’’We have one gentleman in his 70s who can’t communicate but he used to be a great harmonica player and during the choir session he will bring out his harmonica and start playing it beautifully...just magic.
‘‘I believe music is part of the fabric of our society. It enriches so many lives.’’