When I hear people say "every day's a school day" or "you learn something new every day", I always smile because I feel there is a joy in the daily triumphs we all get from learning new things. In a choir we learn songs, of course, and every rehearsal we build on that knowledge and musicality. But I suspect over time we also learn so much more from being in a choir than just the music, so I asked my choir Facebook friends to help me out with their thoughts on this and I've distilled the top five take-aways from being in a choir.
1. Don't worry, be happy
The first answer I had from my friends on Facebook was: "Choir has taught me to learn to let go and have a good time". Being in a choir forces you to be present in the moment and that moment will often involve laughter, when there are lots of you all in a room together trying to work on a song. A good choir session also gives you a little physical and emotional distance from the stresses of life, which for many can help them to gain a healthier outlook and perspective and make them more able to cope: "Choir means being happy on a regular basis, and knowing it's okay to smile and laugh, even if things around you aren't so great right now".
2. Team work makes the dream work
Team work is essential to a choir's success, musical or otherwise. Quite literally, you all have to sing from the same hymn sheet to make it work, and you can't do that without listening to each other. You also can't sing and talk at the same time, so for much of a choir rehearsal there is no distraction of conversation - everyone is just focused on the music and working harmoniously to achieve success. For many, learning to blend your voice with others' can be a revelation socially. When the conversation flows after rehearsal you all have that shared goal and a shared experience that bonds you, no matter what your personality, situation or experiences.
3. You can do it, but it's ok to mess up as well
When we learn new things most of us will make mistakes and learning songs is no different. I often tell a choir I'd rather hear a line they're singing loud and wrong so I know how to fix it, and the mistakes are usually a great source of humour, too, so we encourage them! The regular process of learning songs means every few weeks we're often out of our comfort zone, but we always get there in the end and the satisfaction then is immense for everyone involved. It's a useful lesson for outside rehearsals too. As one of our members said: "Being in a choir has taught me that most things are never as bad as they originally seemed." People talk about how choir improves their confidence; I think that's because, as with learning a song, it really helps to know that the path to success is rarely smooth but we can do it if we persevere.
4. Beating the nerves
The anticipation, insecurity and often downright terror I see on choir members' faces before their first public performance is, weirdly, one of my favourite things to see. That's because I know once the music starts they'll be having the time of their lives if they can just overcome this little moment (which they invariably do). In order to learn good singing technique we spend time focusing on breathing, concentration, memory and recall, mainly to improve the sound but also so that in the moment of performance, we are ready and can't be overcome by nerves. Being able to conquer nerves in any scenario helps us to really unlock our potential and do our best, and choir teaches us some great techniques for doing that.
5. You are not alone
If you're in a choir then you're never alone for very long. Once a week, every week, you're going to see the same group of people. This long-term, sustained contact with means others get to know you and look out for you, whether you know it or not, and there'll be someone there when you need them. One of our members told me choir has taught her that "no matter what, there's always somebody who cares"; another who'd been bereaved said "I learnt to reconnect after feeling disconnected". If we've been ill, lost loved ones and/or become isolated, rediscovering a support network in a choir can give us hope, and teach us we don't have to make it on our own. As one lady brilliantly put it, "I learnt that I could feel happiness after a period of great sadness".
All this reminded me of a gentleman who joined one of our Sing with Us choirs about four years ago. After a varied life in different professions he had developed a rare cancer and joined us as he was fond of performing. Initially the choir leader found him challenging as he always wanted to be heard above the others, which made it difficult for them to feel comfortable with him. However, he stayed on and both the choir leader and fellow members helped him to integrate: the other members grew to love his eccentricity, and his strong singing voice offered support to his fellow basses. As his health declined, the other members rallied round him on choir trips and, later, at hospital. He was one of them - and they wanted him to know it. When he sadly passed away his wife told me that she'd seen a change in him in his final few months that she had never thought possible: the choir meant he had finally been able to mix with others and be listened to whilst learning to listen himself. She'd never seen this side of him and she was immensely proud and grateful, as was I. I think this story shows how important it is to keep treating every day like a school day, and proves how much a choir can really do for your skills, confidence and education, even in the last few months of life.