Why do we sing?

The Hospice Choir via Zoom

Keep smiling, keep shining
Knowing you can always count on me for sure
That’s what friends are for.

In good times, in bad times
I’ll be on your side for evermore
That’s what friends are for.

Burt Bacharach & Carole Bayer Sager

The Hospice Choir on Zoom

Every Wednesday evening for three years, around 70-80 people packed themselves into Mountbatten Hospice on the Isle of Wight for a couple of hours. A café and social, day and rehabilitation centre, open seven days a week to the public as well as patients and families sits at the heart of our hospice building and it is into this space that our choir comes together. Staff, patients, relatives – including bereaved people, volunteers as well as members of the wider island community – would all join forces and sing. Some were quite experienced singers whilst others were trying out their voices more or less for the first time. All were welcome.

As the leader of this group, I’ve always been interested in what it is that they come for. We know, of course, that singing is a particularly health-giving activity – ‘body mind and soul’ in the deepest sense: it’s great exercise, it fires the brain, and it gets us in touch with our feeling life, from which we are so often disconnected.

We know that it’s more than this, too. Singing is a social activity and creates community. Many friendships have been forged through the choir. When people sing together, they flourish together. A couple of years ago, Ana Ambrose, who was then a Clinical Psychology doctoral student at the University of Southampton did a study in which she interviewed choir members. Her research highlighted five key types of benefit that members associated with the choir: the sense of being connected, improved physical health, improved mental and emotional wellbeing, a sense of purpose, and a changed perception of the hospice.

Within our Isle of Wight community, the hospice is a focal point. We look after around 2000 people on any one day across our communities and the hospice building provides spaces for inpatient beds, day, self-help and rehabilitation services to support this work. Widely loved and supported, it looks after those affected by death, dying and bereavement, as well as running an innovative programme to change attitudes towards the work that we do. When the choir began in 2017, it quickly found a place at the centre of the hospice community, through a focus on singing songs of hope, uplift, consolation, joy, and mutual support. Bacharach’s classic, That’s what friends are for (originally recorded by Dionne Warwick and friends) is now a kind of choir anthem.

Lockdown

When the country went into lockdown in March 2020, all of this came to a halt. The media began to warn us against singing. In an instant, singing was transformed from being a life-giving practice into a potentially dangerous medium of Covid transmission. For us, and seemingly for the world, singing’s sudden ‘fall from grace’ felt like a peculiarly powerful symbol of the shredding of communities. And then we turned to Zoom…

The key question was –could we sing together online?

The answer came in stages  –  yes…no…YES!

The choir’s first online meeting in late March was experimental. There were 43 of us – a impressive number given that many members were using Zoom for the first time. People had all kinds of teething problems with cameras, mics and the rest of it. We found out quickly (and hilariously) that there were two big problems. One was the time lag between sounds being made and received by others – the infamous ‘latency’ problem which makes it impossible to sing in time together – and the other was the tendency for the audio to overload with so many channels, all but the loudest sounds cutting out. The upshot was that within seconds of starting a song those at the front would be several bars ahead of the stragglers at the back and the rest somewhere in between. We laughed, but we couldn’t resolve it.

And so, like many other choirs gathering online, we reached for the only realistic solution. Everyone is muted, they hear me and sing along, but they are unable to hear each other (though we can all see each other of course – and the ‘sight of sound’ as Richard Leppert (1995) once called it, has become ever more important). It doesn’t ‘work’ – in the way we might normally think of community singing ‘working’ but something happens that’s satisfying enough to keep a strong core of about 30 people returning each week – and we’ve kept it going for nine months now.

All this activity attracted the interest of the local island media. The Press regularly reports on hospice activities, and within a few days of our first meeting (I think of them as ‘meetings’ rather than rehearsals or practices because it’s difficult to rehearse a choir when you can’t hear it) there was a news piece. The choir members’ comments featured in that story illustrate some of the initial excitement of the experience which was felt very genuinely by many:

“It was very novel to see more than one person at a time, and with me living on my own and also working from home, it gave me immense pleasure seeing you all again!”

“The online meeting is as social as the actual one. Great fun as people get to understand the technology.”

“I found it really moving, and it’s just so lovely to connect with others at the moment – probably even more so for people on their own.”

“I so enjoyed seeing you and other choir friends again. Feel we all lifted one another’s spirits.”

Choir member Sue has described how she joined the choir after the death of her husband who was looked after by the Mountbatten team:

“It is a wonderful thing to be able to look forward to each week. To know that there is no pressure and that I will be with people who have been through or experienced similar situations to myself, with who there is an immediate bond. I have made many friends, which has been invaluable in building my new way of life alone.

Continuing to sing online through ‘Zoom’ has been an exciting new challenge and I am so pleased that I have been able to achieve this, using new skills acquired and being able to continue to enjoy singing at this particularly difficult time of lockdown and the feeling of isolation.”

The online format of the sessions has also enabled us to invite members of the community choir of our sister hospice over in Southampton, Mountbatten Hampshire, to join us, since they also had suspended their regular weekly sessions in the pandemic. This has proved an unexpected pleasure, with several members of the Southampton choir zooming with us each week.

Why does it still work, nine months later?

Although as a community choir we come together to sing and this has always been the central focus, the online sessions have revealed ever-more clearly that the social aspects of this singing are just as important. In the online format, the ‘bits in between’ when I invite choir members to say a brief word about how they are doing (which happens more informally around the edges when we are singing together in the hospice) have become an integral part of the evening, and indeed, maybe the zoom format makes this interchange easier to do. At the same time, we hold in mind those who are not with us, either because they cannot manage the technicalities of Zoom or because they do not find the format a satisfying enough musical experience (and it is important to acknowledge that it does not work for everybody). 

Another choir member Alison wrote to me just before Christmas:

“Thank you so much for sustaining our choir throughout lockdown and beyond. It has been such a joy and tonic to positive well-being to sing together on Wednesday evenings and in a strange way I have felt I’ve got to know choir members even better even though we’ve been apart and how lovely to share singing with our Southampton friends.”

What a lovely realisation: that the Zoom choir is not merely a watered-down version of the ‘real thing’, but brings its own unique enrichment.

How long can we keep this going? At the time of writing the vaccine programme is well underway, but a new lockdown has just been imposed by the UK government. There’s new hope with the roll out of vaccines, but we’re still in the thick of it and like everyone, we’re taking every day at a time. But each week when I see the faces of my friends “keep smiling, keep shining” as they sing across our screens, I know our songs will keep our hope, friendship and love alive and well. What are friends for? What is music for?

Reference

Leppert, Richard. (1995) The Sight of Sound: Music, Representation and the History of the Body. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press.

Fraser Simpson,

January 2021

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