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How hitting the high notes and singing in a choir keeps us feeling good

Singing in a choir is good for your health, says a new report. Karen Ireland talks to three Northern Ireland women who say that being on song keeps their health in tune.

Published 19/05/2016

On song: the Belfast Community Gospel Choir in full voice
On song: the Belfast Community Gospel Choir in full voice
Pitch perfect: Karen Davidson who sings with the Belfast Community Gospel Choir
All smiles: Kelly Robinson
Positive feelings: Eileen Aitcheson

Singing in a choir can boost the immune system, help tackle stress and could therefore be an important tool for cancer patients, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Welsh research charity Tenovus Cancer Care has worked with the Royal College of Music and Imperial College to find out that performing in a choir for just one hour can have a positive effective on a person's health.

Dr Ian Lewis, director of research at the charity, said it was the first time that singing had been proven to affect the immune system.

"Singing in a choir can have a range of social, emotional and psychological benefits - and now we can see it has biological effects, too," he added.

The research found that singers were overall more positive, and that those who had depression or other mental health conditions also experienced the greatest reductions of bodily inflammation after singing.

And director of Belfast Community Gospel Choir Marie Lacey (59) agrees that singing is literally good for the body and the soul.

The city choir has toured everywhere from the United States to all over Ireland singing and bringing joy and happiness wherever they go.

Marie, who founded the choir in 2009 which has 120 members from all over the province, says: "Singing is definitely good for the health.

"All our members say they feel great when they come to rehearsals and that it is great therapy for them.

"No matter what mood they arrive in, they always go home with a smile on their faces," she adds. Marie, who now works full time with the choir, which is booked out up to a year in advance, points out: "Just singing and being part of a community like this makes people feel better. The social aspect and being part of something bigger is great for all the members' health and well-being."

She believes raising a song is the perfect antidote to loneliness.

"Joining a choir helps break down isolation and can help people feel part of something. They get to interact with others and we are all like a big family," she adds.

"The choir was created in 2009 after the Good Friday agreement when I felt there was new hope and a new spirit in the city.

"I felt music would be one way of bringing people together from all religions and political and social backgrounds."

"Singing is uplifting and it brings hope. We had one lady who joined a few years ago with terminal cancer.

"She had been given six months to live and she wasn't going to join, but I persuaded her to attend a couple of rehearsals. She ended up doing much better than her prognosis and amazed everyone by living for another 18 months. I would like to think the choir played a small part in that."

We talk to three women who are singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to keeping their health in tune.

‘I kept singing even when I had surgery for breast cancer’

Karen Davidson (44) is a PE teacher who is currently on a career break. She lives in Helen’s Bay with her husband Peter (53), they are both members of Belfast Community Gospel Choir. She says:

My first marriage had broken down and I was going through a very difficult time, so I decided to join the choir in 2010.

I had endured years of fertility treatment and, in the end, it took its toll on the marriage and it fell apart. I was at a really low ebb.

I saw the choir on television and I knew a man in my church who sang with them and he always seemed happy and cheerful so I decided to give it a go and went for an audition.

I loved it from the outset — it was so uplifting and an opportunity to meet new people. I started to get my confidence and self-esteem back.

It had a really positive effect on my overall well-being. I was so energised and full of new enthusiasm for life.

Things turned around for me and I met Peter through my church and we started dating. We got married in 2014, but a week after we came back from honeymoon our world came crashing in around us as I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The doctor referred me after a check-up and when I had a mammogram it revealed the cancer was all over my breast. It was scary as I didn’t even have a lump. I was told I had to have a mastectomy.

And, after a great deal of thought I decided to have a double mastectomy. I was large chested so I wanted to make sure my breasts were both the same size and to also ensure the cancer didn’t come back.

During my surgeries, I kept on singing and being part of the choir. I can honestly say this kept me going and kept my spirits up. It was my saving grace.

After a three-hour rehearsal I just felt so good and so uplifted. I knew it was good for me and for my recovery.

I even went to Boston on tour with the choir. Around the time I was diagnosed, Peter’s mum died from pancreatic cancer and he was grieving deeply so I encouraged him to join the choir as well.

I knew it would mean we would see more of each other as I was out a lot with practices and concerts — but I also knew it would be good for him and help him with his emotions.

He loved it, too. In fact, I only missed one concert last Christmas when I was having my reconstruction, but when Peter came into the ward after the show he was in such good form it made me feel better, too.

I can honestly say the choir saved us. I believe everyone who is in it is meant to be there and we are all on a journey together. Everyone cares about each other.

It just brings joy and I know 100% it helped me in my recovery from cancer.”

‘Judgment is left at the door and everyone can just be themselves’

Kelly Robinson (35) is a special needs classroom assistant from Bangor. She lives with her partner Richard Hodgin who is a musician and they have three children; Kelly’s stepson Patrick (19), Jack (15) and Eva (8). She says:

My partner Richard is a musician with the Open House Festival and when they formed a choir last June he was there to help out, set up and do various jobs. But as his work got busier he wasn’t able to do this anymore so I took over from him and started helping out.

Before I knew it I had ‘joined’ the choir. I just got the buzz for it from the beginning and loved being around the group and singing with them.

Now I can honestly say I am addicted. I love it. It definitely has helped improve my overall well-being, it makes me feel better about myself and has been great for my confidence.

Richard is away a lot with his work so it is great to have something that is just for me.

The choir is like a big family — you know there is always someone looking out for you and there is someone there if you need them.

We started with 40 members and it was just supposed to be for the summer but everyone wanted it to continue. In September we recruited new members and decided to make it a year-round thing.

The choir helps me to forget stresses and strains of everyday life. I moved house recently and we had a concert that night and by the time I stepped onto the stage I had forgotten all the stresses of the move. It just transports you to another place. There is no judgement in the choir. Judgement is left at the door and everyone can just be themselves.

We are all good friends and hire out venues so we can all sit down and eat together.

There is nothing like the feeling of being on stage — we were at the Black Box recently and it was an excellent show. Our Christmas shows were a sell-out. There is a real rush of endorphins and it just makes you feel great so you can’t help but feel happier.

Joining the choir was the best thing I’ve ever done.”

‘There is a sense of well-being that comes from being part of a choir’

Dr Eileen Aitcheson (60) is from Dromore, Co Down. She is married to Alan Wilson (59) and they have three children, Michael (22), Sarah (24) and Jonathan (26). She says:

I have been a GP for 31 years and now work part-time in the surgery in Dromore. Like most people I have a busy, stressful life and work long hours.

I often told patients of the benefits of joining a choir and the ‘feel-good factor’ and health benefits that come with it.

And, in the end, when a new choir was forming last year one of my patients actually suggested to me that I join too.

The choir is called Kerygma and I joined with my good friend Julie McMurray who I also go walking with.

It was just supposed to be for the duration of the year of mission for Down and Dromore Diocese, but in the end it was so successful we decided to carry it on. We meet every other Saturday and it is a cross-community choir.

Everyone says the practices give them a real lift and they always feel better after it.

We were formed in January last year and our first performance was St Patrick’s Day. There is definitely a feel-good factor and an overall sense of well-being that comes from singing in a choir.

It is also a great way to get out and socialise and meet new people.

I am not the strongest of singers and hadn’t sung since I was at university.

But that’s the beauty of a choir when all the voices come together it just works. When the singing comes together and comes out right, there is a really beautiful moment of an awesome sensation that is really breathtaking.

I always tell my patients that singing is good for them as the deep breathing expands the lungs and releases endorphins which produce those positive feelings.

I encourage people to sing in the shower, sing in the car, basically just get singing as it is good physical exercise and great for feeling better.”

Belfast Telegraph

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