A new obsession is sweeping the nation: the choir craze. People everywhere are heading out to their local halls, pubs or churches, simply to raise their voices in song.

Blame the craze on the TV show Glee, blame it on Australia’s Got Talent – whatever the reason, choirs are here, and it looks like they are here to stay.

“Try it once, you’re hooked,” says choir mistress Aleathea Monsour, who runs a mainstream community choir on the Sunshine Coast, and is soon to start a second choir for people with mental illnesses. “Singing in a group is like nothing else – it recharges your spirit.”

Researchers have tried to figure out why so many choir participants report feelings of well-being, and even spiritual elation. As outlined in the Time article Singing Changes the Brain, many studies link this feeling to elevated endorphin levels. In choir circles, this is known as the “singer’s high”.

But is that all choirs can offer – a quick kick of endorphins?

Or can a choir change your life?

Emily’s story

Emily is a member of The Transformers, an inner-city Brisbane choir comprised of members who are experiencing disadvantage in their communities. Emily’s participation in the choir is unique.

“Emily is unable to speak,” explains her dad Paul. “She can vocalise but her intellectual and physical disabilities prevent her from speaking words or singing. Her participation in concerts has to be seen to be believed. She joins in the actions of the songs and claps furiously at the end of each number.”

Paul believes that his daughter’s participation in the choir has changed her life.

“Socially, the choir is enormously important to Emily,” he says. “She has relished the opportunity to be involved in something that is appropriate for her chronological age. She has met amazing people who show her that she is a valued member of society. And going to rehearsals each week has helped her to develop discipline, which has transferred to other areas of her life. She is now more patient and can (tackle) situations that were previously very difficult.”

Funded by Reclink – the same organisation behind the iconic Choir of Hard Knocks – The Transformers have gone from strength to strength since its beginnings in 2009.  The choir has participated in several high-profile events. They’ve performed at the Woodford Folk Festival, torn up the stage with the SBS Rock Quiz team as part of the Queensland Music Festival, and have even given a private performance for His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

“Members of the audience are captivated by Emily on stage and many are moved to come and talk to her after performances,” says Paul. “The most amazing example of this was after a performance for the Dalai Lama when they moved towards each other and embraced when the choir finished singing.”

Watch Emily and the other members of The Transformers choir sing ‘What More Do We Need’ for the Dalai Lama.

 A deep sense of support

Emily’s story shows that the “singer’s high” is not necessarily the main attraction, nor the only positive outcome, for choir participants. According to Mike Meade, the manager of The Transformers, there’s much more to it than that.

“Choirs create an opportunity for social interaction,” he explains, “which we consider just as important as the singing.”

Mike believes the choir offers a safe, regular social group that fosters “a deep sense of support and friendship”. This builds self-esteem, which in turn gives participants the courage to face the world.

“One woman came to the choir so shy that she could not look anyone in the face,” Mike recalls. “She had complex mental health issues and a beautiful heart. As she gained confidence, she revealed more of her private self. After a couple of years, she was singing solos. Eventually she left to join a mainstream choir.”

Fast track to friendship

Recent research supports Mike’s view – it’s the social aspect of choirs that changes people’s lives so dramatically. A 2015 paper published by the Royal Society Open Science titled The Ice-Breaker Effect reveals that choirs generate feelings of closeness and friendship more quickly than other group activities. (The study points out that other past-times do lead to friendship – it’s just that choirs do it faster.)

Another study by Australian researchers Grocke, Bloch and Castle examined the impact of group music therapy on 29 people with chronic mental illness. After only ten one hour weekly sessions, the participants reported better quality of life, health and perceived support from friends.

Mike is not surprised by the research: he has seen how swiftly choir can make a difference in people’s lives.

“We had a choir member with learning difficulties and other issues,” he recalls. “His medical support staff said he made more progress in three months with the choir than in the 10 years prior.”

More choirs in the pipeline

Mainstream community choirs continue to burst onto the scene, but the future is never completely certain for choirs dedicated to people with disabilities or mental illness. Some – including The Transformers – have had to weather tough times due to funding cuts or the sudden loss of private backers.

Despite the difficulties, choirs such as the Choir of High Hopes Hobart and the Sydney Street Choir, continue to thrive, while new choirs are opening their doors. For example, in 2017 Mental Illness Fellowship Queensland will kick-start a new choir,  tentatively named MI Voices, which aims to bring music and laughter into the lives of Sunshine Coast people living with a mental illness, as well as their carers, supporters and friends.

Aleathea Monsour, who has been appointed artistic director of MI Voices, is eager to get the choir underway.

“Singing breaks down walls so quickly,” she says. “A few years ago, I ran a series of singalongs with refugees at a detention centre. I walked into the detention centre where there were perhaps a dozen people, each one from a different country, each one lonely or scared or suffering from depression. And then we sang together, and suddenly it was like we were all talking the same language. I don’t know why it happens, but it happens.”

Aleathea hopes that the MI Voices choir will be about “joy and friendship”.

“We’re not going to take ourselves too seriously,” she smiles. “The first song we’re going to learn is ‘I’m Not Crazy’ by Matchbox 20.  We’re just going to have fun.”

Fun, friendship – and perhaps just a kick of endorphins! With any luck, Australia’s choir craze is just getting started.

A new choir for people with mental illness is not going to “take itself too seriously” – as their song choice shows!

Feature image copyright: The Transformers Choir. Supplied. Used with permission.