Singing My Way to Health and Happiness

music was my refuge

A couple of years ago, around this time of year, actually, I was having a particularly awful day. I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say I was dealing with some pretty heartbreaking family drama, work was pretty crappy at the time, and it was a cold, dark, dismal winter. Anyway, I was about as low as a person could be.

But, despite how I was feeling, I went to Choir rehearsal. It was Tuesday, after all, and that meant that I had Choir rehearsal, end of story. At 7 p.m. sharp, Kelly (our director, Fearless Leader and all around beacon of inspiration and wonderfulness) started the warm-ups. As soon as I opened my mouth to sing the first note, I burst into tears. The enormous weight of that day, the days and weeks (and let’s be honest, months) leading up to that moment was finally Just.Too.Much. So, the dam broke and the tears poured out of me. There I was, surrounded by the 50 or so women I sing with every week, trying to make music come out of my mouth, practically sobbing. I locked eyes with Kelly and she gave me a look that said “don’t worry, you’re here now, it will all just disappear.” My choir mate next to me silently put her arm around me. Another woman behind me gently put her hand on my back and sweetly let it linger there for a second. Someone in the front row handed me a box of tissues with a genuine and kind, encouraging smile. And the singing never stopped.

I forged ahead through the rest of the warm-ups, with more crying than singing (or anything resembling music coming out of me). As soon as it was over and the rehearsal proper was about to begin, I quietly excused myself, went to the bathroom and cried it out for a few minutes. It was simultaneously agonizing and glorious. When I was confident that the worst of it was over, I splashed some cold water on my face, blew my nose, stood up straight and walked back out to the sanctuary to re-join my choir and continue with rehearsal.

I didn’t cry for the rest of the night. And, once I was able to actually make music again from my voice and my throat and, really, from my heart and my soul, I began to feel SO much better. I’m sure it helped that I wept the tears that had been pent up inside me for months, but don’t be mistaken – it was the act of singing that actually made me feel better. It’s true, music is cathartic, and singing in particular espouses all kinds of restorative properties, but the fact that singing (specifically group singing, like in a choir), makes you healthier is a fact. Because SCIENCE!!!

I have been singing and playing instruments my whole life. I have vivid memories of when I was a kid, like a really, really little kid, of singing. Sometimes it’s a visceral memory where I can recall the time, place, circumstances and details. Sometimes it’s more of a flash, a sense-memory of a feeling or sound or sensation. I can remember the actual awareness of matching pitch to whoever I was listening to (and even transposing the octave in my head to accommodate my range and register) and I can remember picking out and singing along with the harmonies in music, long before I knew what any of those things were. Of course, at the time, I didn’t have the knowledge or more specifically the vocabulary to express or even understand what I was doing, but I could just feel that it made sense to me. My friend Meghan likens this to her apparent innate sense of direction – it just makes sense to her. I’ll have to take her word for it, as I am comically directionless. But, it was like a puzzle clicking together in my mind and in my ears. Music came as naturally to me as breathing, and even though I couldn’t conceive of it then, it would be a huge part of my life. Or as I often refer to it now, my lifeblood.

I didn’t consciously set out for a life full of music because of the health benefits, of course, but I have to say, in retrospect, I suspect that music has been my savior in a number of ways. First and foremost, the power of finding one’s passion, one’s niche, one’s thing in life cannot and should not be underestimated. I was lucky to have figured out so early in my life that music was my thing. Of course, I have other things. But, what I mean is that being able to identify my passion as a child, and having the opportunities to nurture and explore that passion (like music in my classrooms in elementary school and music courses and extra curriculars in high school, etc.) as I grew into a real person, grounded me. I always felt very centered and sure of at least one thing in my life – that music was there for me, it was a part of me, it made me feel good, and it wasn’t going anywhere.

The confidence I gained and was able to foster in myself gave me momentum in other areas of my life. Being good at something, I mean, really, naturally talented at something, is a huge deal in terms of your development. I felt capable, knowledgeable, and perhaps most importantly, it distinguished me within my large family. My family tolerated my walking around the house with my bright yellow Walkman clipped to my jeans pocket, belting out Mariah Carey (like, “Vision of Love” was my JAM, yo!). They didn’t really get it, they were sometimes annoyed by me, but they understood that it was my thing, so it was neither celebrated nor denigrated. It just was. Much like I just was. By the way, I totally rocked that Walkman. And yes, I realize that I’m aging myself here. Moving on.

So, the sense of belonging, the sense of community that is felt when you are part of some sort of organized music group is unparalleled. Of course, you can get a sense of community in all kinds of other and varied organized groups of people (like sport, clubs, committees, etc.), but singing groups are unique. In addition to the psychological benefits of feeling like you belong somewhere, there are actual physical and physiological things that happen inside your body that make you healthier, happier, less stressed and more cognitively agile. When you sing, endorphins are released, and we all know about the goodness of endorphins. Also, the constant reading of new music, and in our case, memorizing it, the consistent learning that happens when you sing in a choir, makes your brain stronger which helps stave off Dementias later in life. Kelly always jokes that we’ll be thanking her when we’re hobbling around The Home when we’re elderly because we’ll be the sharpest ladies in the joint! She’s not lying. You can corroborate my claims herehere and here.

In addition to all the health benefits of singing in my choir, I have had the most tremendous life experiences that I couldn’t have even dreamed for myself before being a part of this particular community. I have had the opportunity to travel to a small town in Ontario to put on a concert for some of the most generous and gracious people I’ve ever come across. This particular trip also facilitated a reunion with a dear friend of mine from University. I’ve travelled to New York City to participate in a massed choir performance on the stage of the Lincoln Center. It was one of the few times in my life when I was truly grateful to be so small, because that meant that I was in the front row of about a thousand singers, and I got to experience the Best.View.Ever.

Most recently, because I’m part of Cantores Celestes, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform in a production of R. Murray Schafer’s Apocalypsis as part of the Luminato festival. It was, no exaggeration, a truly life changing experience.

All of this is to say, in the simplest of terms, that singing in choirs has enriched my life. There are actual health benefits (physical and mental) and it has exposed me to new and wonderful opportunities. It brings me joy on so many levels and contributes to my life in myriad ways. And on top of all of that, I get to be a part of a sisterhood of incredible women who push me, support me and inspire me every day. They’re also there to hand me a tissue when I need one.

 

Friendship: A Love Letter

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I have great friends. I mean really, truly wonderful, fabulous friends. I know many of you can (and do!) say the same thing, but I consider myself lucky, actually blessed would be a better word, to have the friendships I have in my life. I would say that what I have with my closest, dearest friends is a rich depth of knowing, an ease and a comfort that is hard to achieve with one person, let alone a handful. Like I said, I’m lucky.

There are all kinds of friendships; those that are forged in childhood that may or may not endure a lifetime, there are those which are situational and usually last for a period of time, and there are those which are toxic and, only with the wisdom and clarity of hindsight do we understand that they were thrust into our lives for a specific purpose. There are lots of variations in between of course, but the takeaway is that the mosaic of friendships we experience in our lives weaves itself into the tapestry of our existence. Right down to the core of us. Our friendships mold and define us, but they also function as a prism through which we come to understand ourselves. If I think about the friendships that have spanned my life thus far, they really do say a lot about me.

My oldest friend is Charlie. We met in Senior Kindergarten. I don’t remember (and I highly doubt he does either), exactly how it was that we became friends. It’s just a fact, the same way that me having brown hair and hazel eyes is a fact. Charlie was the boy who was friends with all the girls. There was a group of us, and he was the sole boy, the one we got to play the “daddy” when we played house. He had cute nicknames for all of us. I don’t remember all of them, but I know that Amy’s was “Cookie” and he, accordingly, anointed me “Cookie Crumb” because, from his 5-year-old perspective, I was so much smaller than everyone else, like the size of a crumb. Seems legit, right?!?

Anyway, Charlie and I were best buds (although I’m sure all the girls felt that way) and he always came to my birthday parties, and I to his, and we often paired up for activities and play in kindergarten and beyond. We remained friends throughout all of our school years – we hung out with the same group of friends and were sometimes in the same class. We went to high school together and even ended up going to the same University. Of course, now time and distance has been etched onto our friendship, and we don’t talk very often. He’s married and raising a young family in our hometown, and I, well, I live the life I live in the big city, so we don’t have that much in common anymore. In fact, we probably don’t have much in common at all. But, we’re still friends. When we do see each other, it’s just like slipping on an old, familiar glove, and the banter and the teasing (him teasing me – I’m always the one being teased, let’s be clear) resumes as if no time has passed at all. Why is that? Well, quite simply, it’s because we share history. We have a lifetime of memories and moments that connect us. We have literally witnessed each other grow up. And that is pretty unique.

It’s a similar story with my best friend, who I’ve mentioned before (she’s the one who has the complementary personality to me…). We met in Grade Two when she and her family moved to my hometown. Again, I don’t remember how we became friends, but I would bet money that I just started talking to her one day and asked her if we could be friends. That’s how I rolled back then. Still do, actually. Becky and I share the kind of deeply enmeshed friendship that can only come from spending a childhood together. I practically lived at Becky’s house in the summers. Her parents were always so much cooler than mine (at least, that’s what I thought back then), and she only had one brother who was a lot older, and therefore not really around a lot, as opposed to my 3 siblings who were everywhere. So we had a lot of freedom to play and dream, and swim and watch scary movies, and stay up way too late playing cards and doing each other’s make-up. I remember fondly the time we decided to make “Lilac Perfume” from the buds on the lilac tree in her front yard. We spent an afternoon concocting a “perfume” which we believed would yield the beautiful scent of lilacs, which we both loved so much. Really, in the end, we just made a huge mess, used every available pot, pan and container in the kitchen, and ended up with a bunch of dead lilacs and water everywhere. But, man did we have a great time! And that’s the point – I have a million memories like that with Becky and, over time, those memories have become part of the fabric of not only my life, but my actual identity. Simply put, I would not be who I am today, as I know myself, without my friendship with Becky.

During our University years, we were slightly less involved with one another. Not for lack of love or a particular falling out or anything…we were just growing at different rates and in different ways, and geography separated us (not by much, but when you’ve always had someone so present in your surroundings, you really feel it when you’re a couple of cities apart). We were still besties and hung out and talked as often as we could. Anyway, fast forward, and as adults our geography aligned and we are closer than ever (literally and figuratvely). We are truly a part of each other’s everyday lives. We hang out almost weekly, I’ve folded her into my group of friends here in Toronto, we vacation together and we talk and text all the time. I think as we’ve gotten older, we’ve both independently, and in tandem, realized the significance of our friendship and have a reverence for it that we perhaps haven’t always had. I believe this year marks 30 years of friendship. She truly is a part of me, and I her (I hope!), and the scope and shape of my life would be irrevocably changed were she not in it.

I have a core group of friends from high school (including Charlie and Becky) who are intrinsically woven into my being. Lisa, Alison, Darcie, and Matt are still in my life. Again, time and distance has changed things, but the core is still there. Brooke and I don’t see each other that often anymore (she’s married, in a different city and has a young family – she literally just gave birth to twins last week! Way to go, Brookie!!), but we make a point to have regular “phone dates” and have really good catch-ups as often as we can. We’re there for each other. She and her husband (who is also a friend of Charlie’s and mine from University – that’s a whole other story!) have come to performances of mine, and I’ve gone there to visit – just because (they actually jokingly call their spare room “Ange’s room”) or to help out with various things. She has really been there for me during some extremely difficult challenges I’ve faced in my life. It takes a very grounded and selfless person to be someone’s rock. And that’s who she is to me. It’s a very loving, give and take relationship. I have SO much love for this woman. And again, the undercurrent of what makes our friendship so lasting and healthy and good, is that shared history. We have so many memories from our teen years, a really pivotal time in our lives. We were trying to figure out who we were alongside each other, exploring what it means to be supportive and giving in friendship. We also learned (and I think, still do) a LOT from each other. And we’ve certainly laughed a lot over the years too.

Once we surpass the school years, and are actual adults, out in the world, our friendships form differently. There’s a really great article about making friends in adulthood that I read a while ago, and it’s stuck with me. Anyway, I would argue that these freindships come about for different reasons. I’m a believer in fate, in the abstract sense that I think the Universe, as we perceive it, is a manifestation of our collective subconscious intuition. Everything we do in life is a result of us acting, subconsciously, on an intuition compelling us. Anyway, I digress.

As an adult, I’ve met countless friends through work, through friends of friends, romantic relationships, etc. Some of them have endured. Some of them have been painful lessons in relationship toxicity. And I believe there is a distinct reason for that. I have been lucky to cross paths with them because I have something to learn from them, or about myself, or even to teach them. And I find, as I grow older and gain more experience in the world and have a distinctly curated and strong sense of who I am and what truly motivates and inspires me, my choice of friends is much more deliberate. But also, contradictorally, it’s simultaneously much more intuitive. I trust myself more now, and I listen when the Universe tells me something.  And I think that says much more about me than it does about the individuals to whom I have nurtured a connection.

Alex, Missy, Josh, James, Bexx, Cheryl, Nicki – they have all entered into (and stayed in) my life for a reason, a purpose. And it goes far beyond the fact that there is trust and love and fun and respect…it’s a more intangible force that I can’t quite put my finger on, except to say that these people who I have selfishly scooped up into my life, collected along the way and folded into my very being, enrich me immeasurably. It’s not enough to say that I love them and they are my friends because I want them to be. It’s more than that. It’s that my friendships are so important to me, and so essential to my self-expression that I wouldn’t be me without them. Each one of these amazing people holds up a different mirror that reflects a fragment of me. And, if not for all the other mirrors being held up by different friends, a whole reflection would not be possible.

I cherish the long, lazy home cooked dinners with copious amounts of wine that Alex and I share. Some of my best conversations and epiphanies have occurred at her dinner table. It’s amazing to me that when Missy and I hang out or talk on the phone (which she HATES to do with just about anyone else), we lose time, and before you know it, it’s 4 hours later and I gotta get home. Josh and James are my safe place to land. They are my protectors at times, but they also lift me up and accept me for exactly who I am – flaws and all. They also enjoy a good Ange-story. I could go on and on…

I think if we all looked inward hard enough, we’d realize the ways in which our friendships shape us and at the same time, reflect who we are. What’s that expression? The grass is always greener where you water it. Well, I may not have much of a green thumb in real life, but my garden of friendship is bountiful, beautiful and as green as it gets.

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