Southbank explores impact of singing on mind, body and spirit, reports Hannah Nepil
Can singing make us healthy? Not if you happen to be an operatic heroine it would seem, the most unfortunate example being that of Antonia from Les contes d’Hoffmann, who manages literally to sing herself to death.
Such cases aside, the consensus is that singing is good for us. Less, however, is known about the specific health benefits associated with singing, the focus of this weekend’s Chorus! Festival at the Southbank Centre.
Vocal performances will be combined with talks from musicians, experts and medical professionals. Workshops include ‘Singing and its impact on dementia sufferers’, ‘Singing and mental wellbeing‘, ‘The Impact of Singing on Children‘, and ‘Singing for Breathing’, the latter a chance to explore how singing benefits those with breathing and lung disorders. Meanwhile, singing events range from a new community cantata by John Browne, composer-in-residence at the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery at King’s College London, to a 'Massive Messiah' in which members of the public experience the benefits of singing for themselves by joining professional choirs for a 750-strong rendition of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus.
‘We wanted to pitch the idea of health and the voice from more than one aspect,’ says Mary King - director of Southbank Centre’s VoiceLab, and involved in the preparation of the festival. ‘We plan to look at the best way of optimising long lasting vocal health both as a singer and as a speaker and also to examine the other side of the sphere - the idea that through singing you can achieve a greater sense of health’. It’s an ambitious task, she acknowledges. ‘Because group singing is such a complex activity, it’s hard to determine the kernel of the thing that’s making people feel better. Is it the singing itself? Or the fact that people are communally engaged on one activity?’
Much of it, she says, comes down to the former: ‘There’s the fact that you’re using much deeper breathing that we usually tend to, that you’re using big muscle groups, you’re opening your throat, you’re relaxing your body.’ Then there’s the pleasure of producing the notes themselves. ‘When you’re singing it’s as if you’re actually inside the piece of music in a way that no other instrument can be, ’ says King. Add to that the feeling of social inclusion that comes hand in hand with group singing and you get ‘endorphins all over the place’.
But that’s only part of the story. Aside from the feel-good factor, singing also brings physical benefits. Increased lung capacity, increased immunity and greater oxygenation of the blood resulting in improved alertness are all effects that it has been claimed singing causes. What’s more, singing is good for the brain, as Dr Graham Welch, Professor at the Institute of Education maintains. ‘Singing is of great interest to neuroscientists as it would seem that there is more of the brain given over to the processing of music than almost any other activity.’ One recent study of four to five-year-olds found that those with musical training showed enhanced language abilities and memory for words, and there is evidence that taking part in musical activities improves certain aspects of non verbal reasoning, literacy and numeracy. Even infants benefit from exposure to musical stimulus: the pitch and rhythm of the speech used to communicate with infants are thought to be vital to their developing understanding of language.