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.

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 7p.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 the 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 body, 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 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. I have other things, of course. 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 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 sometimes (probably all the time) found me annoying, 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 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 our retirement homes 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 ever 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 mass 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 short, because that put me 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. I enjoy 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. And they’re also there to hand me a tissue when I need one.

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