Skirting the Issue: Is singing the new therapy?

I have stated many times over the past almost ten years in which I have been writing this column that I cannot sing. Not a note. I have looked on at family members with envy and admiration as they burst into song with a confidence and talent I could only dream of.

It may surprise you to read, therefore, that in February of this year I joined a choir. For at least one evening a week since then I have been meeting with friends old and new to sing a variety of songs and yes, on occasion, we have even performed in public. And we’ve been really very good.

Now I’m not going to claim that all this time I have been hiding a Mariah Carey style voice from you all - I would still maintain that I’m not a great singer. My voice isn’t particularly strong, or (thankfully) loud. But I’ve learned that, with the exception of one or two more difficult harmonies, I can generally sing in tune.

And my Thursday evenings have become a bit of a salvation. They are the one time of the week when I’m not mammy/wife/ daughter/employee/author under contract and I’m free to just lose myself in singing.

I can’t actually quantify how much it has helped me - it has been one of the biggest sources of stress relief and enjoyment in my life in what has been an exceptionally busy and often stressful year.

So there I wasn’t one bit surprised to see a report on BBC News this week extolling the virtues of singing when it comes to improving your health and reducing your stress levels.

In fact studies have sung that singing together in a group can help slow down the progression of illnesses such as Parkinsons or Alzheimers and can also help alleviate the symptoms of depression.

It was also suggested that in the future, GPs could prescribe singing as a way to help people deal with certain health issues.

It might sound like a load of mumbo jumbo, but having been there - that terrified person walking into a choir room unsure of what to expect and now being someone who looks forward to my Thursday nights even more than I look forward to my Friday night glass of wine, I have to agree there is something in that theory.

Although believe me it took a lot of guts to do it. The last time I sang publicly was when I was 10 and singing in the Rosemount PS choir under the direction of Mrs Joyce - who, in a kind yet devastating manner once told me I was “grand for the choir” but that I shouldn’t sing on my own.

Somewhere over the course of the following 25 years that morphed into “Sweet living God, a strangled cat would sound better” in my head. And apart from the odd round of Twinkle Twinkle to the kids, or Glee impressions in the car on my own when I was sure no one else could hear me, I would not open my mouth to sing a note in front of anyone. Even singing ‘Happy Birthday’ at family parties, as part of a crowd, would make my blood run cold. I mimed on more than one occasion or just stayed quiet and let everyone else batter on.

However earlier this year my sister badgered me into joining her new choir - saying sure it was all just for a bit of craic and I wouldn’t have to audition and I could just see how I got on.

With minimal confidence I arrived, sat beside the people I knew, stared at the lyrics sheet in front of me and took weak at any mention of singing on my own, or even in a group smaller than 10.

But when I left, even though we’d done little more than a few vocal warm ups I was buzzing on a real natural high. Sure hadn’t I felt the fear and done it anyway?

Over the weeks my confidence has grown. Okay, so my voice isn’t going to give Beyonce anything to worry about but when singing with other people - our voices strong together, the stronger voices balancing out those just finding their way - it sounds brilliant.

But more than the sound - it’s the feeling - the natural high. The stress relief that comes with letting down your barriers and your inhibitions. As one struggling with depression there have been times when my singing session has done more good than any dose of anti-depressants or therapy could.

So to hear that singing can help tone muscles in those with Parkinsons, help those with Alzheimers retain their speech for a little longer and can build self esteem and confidence in those with mental health difficulties is no surprise. Sure you might feel self conscious - and sure you might get the notes wrong some of the time - but at the end of it you will walk away feeling a little lighter and a little brighter.

Singing on the NHS? I’m all for it.

And in a shameless plug, my wee choir - Encore Contemporary Choir - will be performing our show ‘Musicals and Mistletoe’ at the Waterside Theatre on December 18.

I’ll be the one at the back looking nervous - but it promises to be a brilliant night and a perfect way to start your Christmas celebrations a week early.

And there will be plenty of opportunities to sing along if the notion for a little singing therapy hits you.