All I ever really needed to know I learned in Choir

by Joy-Anne Murphy

When I was young (about eight, I think), I joined the choir at my elementary school because I could sing loudly.

Truth be told, I was kind of yelling, but it was heartfelt, throw-back-your-head-and-holler-your-joy kind of yelling, and my teacher found something of merit in it, and let me into choir. Quite frankly, I think any child who sings like that should be encouraged. None of this “just move your mouth, sweetie” nonsense! Any child who doesn’t have a hearing deficiency or vocal pathology should be able to sing on pitch - some just need more practice than others...

There are so many things we can learn from singing in a choir, it still surprises me to this day that not every elementary aged child is expected to experience it for at least a couple of years. Bands and orchestras are wondrous things, but they require a certain level of proficiency or dexterity that makes them slow to gel anything truly musical at the very beginner level. Now, once the commitment is there and a group of instrumental players have some experience, that is a wondrous thing, so please don’t think I am against bands!

But even instrumental players need to know how to think and feel musically, which is where our very own built-in instrument comes into play. Long before kids are learning instruments, they should be given the chance to hear and feel what it is like to make awesome (or raucous or serene or driving) music with their own bodies. To know that they can be, that they ARE musical, and to feel a part of a larger whole; to understand on a gut level what “fine tuning” means, and to be part of something that moves them and others is of profound importance in shaping young people’s perspectives and skills for living.

So what, exactly, are the many life lessons one might learn in choir?

Timing is everything!

Choirs teach you how to count, move together, breathe together, begin to create music together. There are so many layers of information being conveyed in the performance of a piece of music - often intuition is the strongest thread binding the fabric of the song.

Variety is the spice of life

Every colour and volume is important or useful in the singer’s vocabulary, and one must be able to use judgment as an individual and as a group.For the singers and listeners, it takes a wide range of styles to create and sustain interest, and a choir is a great place to explore everything from the classics to world music to Broadway hits.

Discipline

Every singer can tell the story of rehearsing a piece that was not really their favourite, until one day, one rehearsal or performance, that song simply became beautiful anyway, and they were compelled to admire what they had helped to create. To know on some level what amazing accomplishments can come from sustained effort - that sometimes methodical or even tedious work can bring astonishing results - is often what brings the choral singer back. We all need something to nourish our brains toward longer attention spans in this age of instant messaging.

Cognitive skills

Choral singers learn how to understand, analyze and apply symbols from their own language as well as other languages and systems. They learn how to gauge unspoken meanings, how to interpret intangible concepts and how to memorize both visually and aurally.

Listening

The choir member is always learning how to hear others, how to balance another part against their own. Each singer must also discover how to hear their voice before opening their mouth, how to hear the music before they sing it!

Awareness

This is one of the awesome things about choral singing: intuiting things with your body as well as your brain! Sensing whether your note’s colour and shape, volume and duration is the same as the notes of your fellow singers can involve not just your ears but your abdomen, ribcage, lungs, throat, tongue, inner and outer muscles around the mouth... whew!

Leadership

Choir members learn how to balance leading and following, how to take direction, how to read body language, how to interpret someone else’s ideas yet bring in their own personality.

Trust

A choral singer must learn to trust their body, brain, and the connection between them! They learn to trust the director as well as the other members of the group.

A group is more than the sum of its parts

Each group can have a distinct personality, that becomes its own apart from all the interests and abilities brought by each member. To be part of a luminous performance in such a group can be breathtaking, a true “aha!” moment that every choir (and many an audience member) continues to strive for.

The moral of the story is: Everybody should sing in a choir, of course! Not possible? Find another art form or group that meets at least six out of these nine “skills” and piques your interest, and join! Better still, convince others to join with you.