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The Sound of Music

Mark Gale

Mark Gale

Author

Health & Wellbeing

Always wanted to do it, but never got round to it? Now’s the time to sing or play your way to happiness

When Anne Rason turned 60, her biggest fear was not of the ageing process but of becoming invisible. ‘I’d seen it happen to friends of mine,’ says Anne, a stylish 71-year-old. ‘Once you reach a certain age, in some people’s eyes you just seem to stop existing. 

‘So I registered as a volunteer for the 2012 London Olympics, where I met some amazing people. One of the most inspirational was Victoria Verbi, then a 19-year-old student, who suggested forming a choir. I’d always loved to sing but never done anything about it, so the idea of doing something with all these lovely people was really appealing.’ 

That idea grew into The Games Maker Choir, which has become the unofficial go-to choir for sport. In the five years since the Olympics, the Games Makers have performed at many of the big sporting events around the country. ‘The choir has given me a terrific sense of inclusivity,’ says Anne. ‘We all talk about feeling part of this wonderful family, where ages range from 23 to 84, and careers from student to solicitor, teacher to truck driver.’

There are now over 25,000 choirs across the UK, mostly thanks to the phenomenal success of Gareth Malone’s attempts on TV to get us singing (pictured right). Singing uses almost every muscle group, increases lung capacity, improves posture and boosts mental alertness by raising the level of oxygen in the blood. Belting out a tune also exercises the facial muscles. It’s an all-round workout, while having a great time. 

Much research has been carried out on the importance of music – playing or singing – as a valuable tool in maintaining cognitive stability, and it’s never too late to learn. British concert pianist James Rhodes’ (pictured below) book How to Play the Piano promises that anyone of any age willing to practise 45 minutes a day, six days a week, will be able to play Bach’s Prelude No 1 in C Major in six weeks.

Rhodes knows what he’s talking about: he credits music with saving his life following a devastating mental breakdown. ‘Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it, that music saved my life,’ he says, ‘but that’s not unique to me. Life without music would be inconceivable – it goes beyond words, beyond religion. Music is the ultimate unifier. It polishes your soul in a gentle way and then puts it back in.’

The joy is that we can all respond to music. It’s a mood changer, it can evoke memories and, above all, it enables us to connect with others and ourselves. There’s no age barrier, either. ‘We tend to remain contactable as musical beings on some level right up to the very end of life,’ said the late Professor Paul Robertson, a concert violinist and academic, who made a study of music in dementia care.

‘We know that the auditory system of the brain is the first to function fully at 16 weeks, which means you are musically receptive long before anything else. So it’s a case of first in, last out, when it comes to a dementia-type breakdown of memory.’ Paul cited the time he was playing for a former church organist with advanced dementia. ‘She was very far gone, no language, no recognition. Someone started singing a hymn and this woman sat down at the piano, found the right key and accompanied the singer in perfect order.’

Breaking the Ice

Music therapy is now a recognised means of support for people of all ages, starting with babies right through to palliative care at the end of life. The brain is a muscle and, like other muscles, needs to be exercised. So regular use will make your brain fitter. But there’s more to singing than just keeping your brain working. There are the social benefits, too.

A 2015 survey from the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford observed different groups in adult education over seven months. Some were taking singing classes, others creative writing or craft. Dr Eiluned Pearce, who led the research, found the difference between singers and non-singers appeared right at the start of the study. ‘In the first month, people in the singing classes became much closer to each other over the course of a single class than those in the other classes did. Singing broke the ice better than the other activities.’

Such is the power of choirs that they’re a big noise in the business world, too. Tessa Marchington, MD of Music in Offices, who launched Office Choir of the Year in 2010, explains how singing makes you feel good. ‘There is a lot of data to show that singing, in particular, releases specific chemicals, such as endorphins and serotonin, which are connected with happiness and trust, and dopamines, which affect memory.’ 

Meanwhile, back to Anne (pictured above), who apologises for cutting short our interview to rush to a rehearsal. She is convinced The Games Maker Choir keeps her brain alert. ‘In the five years since it was formed, we’ve gone from strength to strength, and I’m still discovering new things. Learning new languages to sing 13 national anthems has definitely kept my brain tuned.’ And as for being ‘invisible’, check out any picture of The Games Maker Choir and there’s Anne, smack-bang in the middle of the front row. You can’t miss her!

To find a choir near you, visit choirs.org.uk. For information on learning a musical instrument, visit musicforall.org.uk. McCarthy & Stone is running a series of community choir events this Christmas, click here for more details.

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