Apr 29, 2021

How Choirs Enhance Wellness

Highlights from our Panel Discussion

Last month, we hosted Tafel Talks: Emotional Rescue. This panel discussion explored how choirs and choral singing enhance our wellbeing: physically, mentally, and spiritually, while encouraging collaboration and community building.

Moderated by Tafelmusik Chamber Choir member Cory Knight, this event welcomed panelists ArinMaya, Jody Malone, and Ruben Valenzuela, who offered rich insight into all the ways choir singing fosters wellness in our lives.

In case you missed this event, here are some short highlights from the discussion.

On physicality: what does it physically feel like to sing in a choir?

ArinMaya: “When I’m singing in a choir or chorus, there's a certain excitement that I just get from being physically in the company of other people, and experiencing the power of all of our voices happening at the same time. There's also the embodiment of sound that I’m experiencing in my voice, in my ears: I’m enjoying the music as well as creating it in the same moment.”

Jody Malone: “It starts with the warmup, really. Lots of us are sitting all day long, and then you come to choir, and the first thing your director asks you to do is to stand up and get warmed up. It means that your breathing is changing, your movement is changing: you’re doing something together.”

Ruben Valenzuela: “We have this very tangible thing of words syllables and sounds that we make, that our instrumental counterparts don't have. It creates a very unique physical sensation for us as singers and choral singers: it's almost primal in some ways. It's very deep, this connection to the body, the voice, and wanting to share that with people around you.”

JM: “Singing comes from your body—as opposed to, for example, when I’m playing piano: I’m playing an instrument and you sometimes hit the wrong notes and can blame the keys, that kind of thing. But you want to be at your absolute best when you're singing, because it's really a vulnerable part of you: so it's joyful, it's scary, it's the whole gamut. The body is the instrument, and when you sing together with other people, breathing together, creating sound together, the body physically vibrates. It’s a very fascinating thing to be the instrument, and at the same time, you are a feeling, thinking, instrument… it's a very hard thing explain unless you experience it!”

On psychology: what’s happening in our brains when we sing together?

JM: “We have the cognitive side of our brain, which is the thinking side, the intellectual side, the mathematical side. There's a lot of math in music, as we’re deciphering rhythms, we're deciding how long to hold a note, we're sightseeing through intervals. Those are mathematical relationships, where our entire intellect is engaged in absorbing what is happening in a piece. And of course that's not all: there's the emotional side, and usually it begins right away, because as you gather with people and you sing together, and you notice the tone or the beautiful vibrato of the person beside you, you immediately get touched by that. What ends up happening is your brain is firing all those pistons, so you end up being fully engaged which is what we want, that's ultimately the goal. That leads to the hot topic of mindfulness, in which you stop thinking about the past or the future, and tune into the present: tune out all the worries the distractions. When you sing, what's happening brainwise is the perfect example of mindfulness, which is what a lot of us strive for.”

AM: “The voice is a vibration, and so in the midst of singing with other people we are mixing our vibrations together, and also creating this strong synergy. It’s taking us out of ourselves—but also bringing us all to the same wavelength, mentally and emotionally. It has this “supreme power” element: to bring us all together. It’s hard to describe unless you have experienced it, but there’s nothing like singing together: it really gathers people together, gathers their energies.”

On community building: how do choirs bring people together?

AM: “The Resistance Revival Chorus [which ArinMaya directs] is a chorus made up of over 60 women and non-binary people. We are very diverse: culturally, economically, socioeconomically—there are so many different identities in the chorus. Starting out, even before the work that we’re currently doing, we started out by reaching out to the community, and being a political voice and a political presence. There’s empathy within the group, because we are coming to know someone outside of ourselves, while we’re becoming a community within ourselves at the same time.

On politics: how can choirs foster and encourage political acts of resilience?

CK: “It was actually in a choir that I first met another gay person—and so on a personal level choirs have always been a place of community, of belonging, and of safety.”

JM: “Thinking about my own choir, Singing Out, which is an LGBTQ+ choir: just being in the choir is a political act, a political statement. For example, many people in the choir have a coming out story. We have one member who decided that the way they wanted to tell their parents about their orientation was to invite them to a concert. Standing amongst their fellow LGBTQ+ community is its own political statement: it’s an act of bravery and courage, and solidarity.”

AM: “The Resistance Revival Chorus started in July 2017, after “so and so” took office, and after the Women’s March happened. A lot of the organizers of the Women’s March came together and decided that we needed to continue uplifting ourselves, in the midst of doing activism, to keep the world from shifting into horrendousness. So the chorus was a by-product of that. One of the things that makes it so amazing is that we’re all coming together for the purpose of resisting…there is love and acceptance and respect within the group, and we take that same love, acceptance, and respect out to the people, to the communities that we hope to inspire: these communities are gathering amongst themselves, gathering with us at rallies and protests, and continuing to uplift the values that we hold dear.”

On mental health: how do choirs act as a form of healing?

JM: “One common trauma that we all experience at some point in our lives is loneliness. That itself can be very traumatic: it can be based on loss, or moving to a city. There’s a demographic of more and more young people living alone, and experiencing loneliness—and then throw in the pandemic, things have gotten worse. With my choir, I’m extremely happy that we’ve continued to rehearse throughout the pandemic. One member suggested setting up an outside choir, and that has become an extra support group for people.”

JM: “I teach high school, and I see more and more students talking about having general anxiety disorders. I really think that the process of communal breathing together—similar to a yoga class—can make people feel less alone. You’re not alone in a kayak, you’re in a big rowboat with other people, as you row together and breathe together. There’s something incredibly healing about tat: it helps the body with the fight or flight response to anxiety.”

JM: “With depression, it’s sometimes hard to shower, to get dressed, to get out and get on the subway to get to a rehearsal—it’s too much. But with the pandemic, we’re seeing some people joining us [virtually], because they are able to manage that: they can be in the safety of their own home, and still be with us. That’s a victory.”

Tafel Talks are thought-provoking conversations about the transformative role of music in our world today. At a time when we are all craving deeper connection, these lively online panel discussions navigate a wide range of intriguing topics and feature dynamic guest panelists and moderators from Toronto and beyond, with a viewer Q&A following each discussion.

Please see our upcoming and past Tafel Talks events here.