It’s a Monday evening. A man wearing a tilted black beret straps a tambourine to his white trainer. He takes a seat and absentmindedly strums a few chords. Pints are set down and a group of adults gather around him as the familiar intro of Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots are Made for Walkin’ strikes up through the amp.
There’s laughter, whispers of apologies from latecomers and a group of local residents playing pool in the corner of Blackheath Wanderer’s Sports Club, where Felix’s Rock Choir rehearses. It’s relaxed, it’s playful and it’s comfortable. As they sing, feet stamp and hips wiggle – their happiness is contagious. It’s clear, at least for the next two hours, that no one’s thinking about the bills or tomorrow’s meeting.
Research has found that a stressful day can result in memory failures, chronic conditions and neuroticism. Singing, conversely, has been shown to reduce hormones associated with stress evoking a positive response from our bodies.
According to Anna Shields and Emily Garsin, founders and directors of Starling Arts, an organisation using singing to promote health and wellbeing, singing creates plenty of feel-good responses, releasing endorphins, serotonin and boosting the immune system, as well as reducing the stress responsive cortisol. “We all have those days where we want to climb under the covers and hide from the world,” Shields says. “But after years of leading singing with groups, we know that once we get going, a sing will make us feel a bit better, whatever is going on in our lives.”
For the past 10 years, Michelle Franklin, a matron at Lewisham Hospital and member of Felix’s Rock Choir, has used singing as a way of leaving the workday behind her. “It’s really good for the soul,” she says. “I have a really stressful job, starting at 6.30am but when I get to choir on a Monday evening, it’s just such an uplifting feeling.”
During a rendition of Danny Boy, the choir unanimously forget to turn the page, slowing to a dramatic finale as musical director Baz Golin continues in a determined bid to keep them moving. There’s confusion and laughter as the choir scrambles to catch up with the guitar.
For many, the choir is a family, giving a sense of community and belonging that keeps the membership strong. Angela Aston, an interior designer, who joined the choir a decade ago says, “It’s often hard to get back out in the evenings but I feel like we’re a family. You get to know people and find friends.”
Singing in choirs specifically has been linked to an increase in oxytocin, a chemical that enhances feelings of trust and bonding resulting in a reduction of loneliness, a major contributor to stress. “The benefits are amplified further when we sing with a group in a setting such as a choir,” Garsin says. “Belonging to a group is an important contributor towards our sense of interconnection, purpose and belonging.”
At Blackheath Choir, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2021, members have been returning every Tuesday for decades. “I’ve been singing in this choir for 40 years,” says Tony West. “I just enjoy it so much. I enjoy the music and I love singing with people. It’s wonderful when you’re working up to the concert and the orchestra arrive and you can see it all coming together.”
Although more traditional than the rock choir, performing a classical programme of Schubert’s Stabat Mater and Haydn’s Heiligmesse, its members share the same uplifting feeling and enjoy its stress busting results.
Here, pints are replaced by tea and coffee as members take their allocated seats in green plastic chairs at The Kingswood Hall, as they prepare for their upcoming concert. “This is a very helpful way to de-stress from your life. It just fills your brain with something else,” says Clare Cotterill, a lawyer working for a firm in the city. “I’m not very good at mindfulness but singing and coming together as a group it really does take you away from whatever your day-to-day stresses are.”
Ross Power, one of the directors of UK Soul Choir who rehearse at Trinity School, Hither Green finds leading the choir transforms his stress levels, even with 60 adults looking to him for direction: “I can turn up to a session not really feeling like running the session,” he says. “Then as soon as I get into it, it’s like a switch and everything goes all the stress goes and I have a great time. It’s a great stress buster for me.”
UK Soul choir currently has nine community choirs throughout London and the Southeast. “There are choirs for everyone,” says Power. “There are so many to try and so much to get from them.” Sheilds agrees. “Think about what you want to achieve – whether that be a fun, friendly experience or really high-quality singing – and ask to go along to a taster session of any groups that align with your goals. Remember that everyone was new to the group once and expect mistakes and challenges. They’re all part of the journey.”
Whether it’s having a crack at an Irish ballad or blowing the cobwebs off your Latin with a Haydn Mass, for the members of these choirs, singing is their release, their way of pressing pause on their stressors and losing themselves in a melody. For two hours a week it’s not about how good they are at singing that matters, but how it makes them feel. A much-needed reprieve from modern day thinking.
Eastlondonline’s choral collection
Rehearses Tuesday 7:30-9:30pm, click here for more information and to register your interest
Croydon Bach Choir
Rehearses Wednesday 7:30-9:30pm, click here for more information
Croydon Philharmonic Choir, East Croydon
Rehearses Tuesday 7:15-9:30pm, click here for more information
Felix’s Rock Choir, Blackheath
Rehearses Monday 7:30-9:30pm, click here for more information
Rehearses Thursday 7:30-9:30pm, click here for more information
Hackney Voices Community Choir
Rehearses Tuesday 7:30-9:30pm, click here for more information
Soul Symphony Choir, Croydon
Rehearse Tuesday 7pm, click here for more information
UK Soul Choir, Hither Green
Rehearses Monday 7:30-9pm, register for your free trial here
Victoria Park Singers, Hackney
Rehearses Wednesday 7-8:30pm, click here for more information
Click here to see the rest of ELL’s article for Stress Awareness Month