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The appeal of the four-part harmony: why we can’t get enough of choirs at Christmas

From Bach oratorios to Taylor Swift hits – Kate Mulqueen investigates why people sing together in choirs, and why they’re always smiling.
editorial
A group of colourfully-dressed choralists perform at Fed Square.
Melbourne Mass Gospel Choir perform at Fed Square, at the lighting of the Christmas Tree event and as part of the Christmas Choirs program, November 2023. Photo: Tobias Titz.

Melbourne has long had a significant choral scene – the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic (RMP), led by Andrew Wailes, celebrated its 170th anniversary this year, making it the oldest surviving cultural organisation in Australia, and one of the oldest secular choirs in the world. The RMP sang at the opening of the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880, the First Australian Parliament in 1901, and at the opening ceremony of the 1956 Olympic Games. Each year, the RMP performs Handel’s Messiah – the famous sacred oratorio that first launched the choir.  

Some 184 choirs are listed on the website Choirs of Melbourne, a resource run by Karina Gough, Melbourne-based singer, musician, music teacher and musical director. Karina started the website 23 years ago as a project for a university subject, and has maintained it ever since.  

Alongside Community Music Victoria and the Australian National Choral Association (the peak body for choirs in Australia), the website provides information on the huge range of choirs that people can join in Melbourne.  

“To quote Douglas Adams from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, it’s all about banging heads together” Karina says. “Singers that want to sing in choirs, choirs that are looking for other choirs to collaborate with, orchestras that are looking for choirs to collaborate with and vice versa.”  

Karina’s website, which she quickly points out is an not an exhaustive list, provides info on each choir, searchable by suburb or music director, or type of choir (what type of repertoire is sung, whether sight-reading is required, whether music is arranged for SATB, or soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices) with details about where and how often they rehearse and the joining requirements, all which helps people find the choir that suits them. 

“There are two categories of choirs,” Karina says. “There’s a small handful in every city that specialise in classical music and repertoire, like the RMP: very serious, high-level stuff: all the well-known oratorios, and also the rather beautiful and large lexicon of writing for massed voices, particularly in a religious setting. Membership requirements are very high, because you’re dealing with some seriously difficult music to sing. And therefore, the singers themselves are either professional semi-professional or extremely good amateur level. 

“But then, you’ve got this burgeoning number of other choirs, which use simple arrangements, often with more popular music.”  

But the whole joy, whether you’re sitting working on a Bach motet or about to sing Handel’s Messiah for the 47th time or a Taylor Swift song that someone has come up with some really easy harmonies to do: you are surrounded by people who are doing exactly the same thing with a gorgeous big grin on their face.”

Why do they sing? 

In 2017, Brisbanite Astrid Jorgensen introduced Australia to the Pub Choir, which has since become a global phenomenon. A video of 18,000 strangers singing Toto’s Africa across 15 cities in Australia has racked up more than 390,000 views, and it’s hard not to watch it without understanding exactly what Karina was talking about: we see people of all ages and backgrounds, bouncing to the rhythm of the music, waving their arms in the air, their eyes shining with joy as they sing together with absolute abandon. 

 

“You might sing flat,” Karina says.You might have sung in a choir as a kid, you might never have sung. You might only sing in the shower, and everybody tells you to shut up. But in a group of 300 people, in a hall with a drink in hand the promise is: this is the place for you.”  

She says the trick is in picking simple songs and creating simple arrangements. And then, in the relaxed atmosphere of a pub setting, everyone can enjoy the experience of letting go, without being hung up on the idea that they can’t sing. 

It’s clear, whatever people’s background and musical ability, the urge to lift our voices loud is strong in Melbourne. 

About 18 years ago” says Vicky Jacobs, Music Director and founder of Melbourne’s Glee Club, “I kept having the same conversation with people where they’d say, ‘Oh, I’d love to join a choir, but I can’t commit. They want me to come every rehearsal and I’m busy with work and family, and I can’t.’ So, I started a sing-along choir at The Butterfly Club [in Melbourne’s CBD]. That’s where Glee Club started. It’s a choir where you don’t have to commit. You can just turn up when you feel like a sing and have the experience of being in a choir.” 

Glee Club now has three choirs, serving Melbourne’s west, east and south. Glee Plus is led by Jacobs and rehearses in Southbank at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre. 60-plus choralists from across Glee Club’s three choirs have performed at Fed Square as part of the Christmas Choirs program this year – but you won’t find them singing about snow. “We’ve actually done Fed Square a few times, and quite often, it’s 30 something degrees and it feels absolutely ridiculous singing about Frosty the Snowman, so he’s out.” 

So what will they be singing? “There is a favourite that the choir won’t let me take out any year, and it’s Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun. We were actually at The Butterfly Club’s 10th birthday party where Tim Minchin gave one of the very first performances of that song, and we were all performing at that same gig. It feels really special to us. Like we were there at the beginning, and it just captures our experience of Christmas so beautifully.” 

Veronica Gauci has been leading the Brimbank Multicultural and Community Choir for 18 years and has been a member since the choir started in 2003. The choir emerged from a Brimbank Council-funded project Belonging, which was a choral performance based on stories gathered from the diverse migrant communities in Brimbank, including stories from the Filipino, Sudanese, Macedonian, Chilean and other communities.  

“Part of the show was to tell these stories through script and song,” Veronica says. “So [the choir director at the time, Jenny Swain] wanted a choir formed. I was part of that choir, and I did some solo singing. When the show finished, the choir really wanted to stay together. So, the council agreed to fund us, and they continue to do so today, 20 years later.” 

For Veronica, the success of the choir is more than just singing. It’s become about community, relationships, and also wellbeing.  

“I have people of all abilities, some suffering with mental health issues. When they come, they feel 110% better when they’ve been singing and seeing familiar faces. 

Why so happy? 

The health and wellbeing benefits of singing are well-documented and researched, says Dr Solange Glasser, Senior Lecturer in Music (Music Psychology) at the University of Melbourne.  

Singing really is a whole of brain workout. And that’s why we say that singing is to mental health what exercise is to physical health. If you see a brain in a scanner of someone who’s singing, it’s like fireworks.

Almost every part of the brain is lighting up. You’ve got the motor networks, the listening networks, the planning and organisation, memory, language, emotion networks, all of these. And this is leading to the release of dopamine, which is that feel-good chemical for the brain. Singing really is a form of natural therapy. It lifts our mood, and it gives all of those networks a workout. And this brings a neuroprotective benefit for our mental health.” 

The health benefits of singing are multiplied when singing in a choir, Dr Glasser says. “From a psychological perspective it can improve self-confidence, it improves cognitive functions, and reduce loneliness. There have been studies, for example, with women who have post-natal depression. And they found that by simply being in groups singing for just a matter of a few weeks, there’ve been up to 40% reductions in the symptoms of post-natal depression. The health benefits of group singing have led to the social prescription of choral singing in the UK, and a push to do this elsewhere, for people who suffer from depression, anxiety, stress and also chronic pain.” 

Like Veronica Gauci, Sue O’Neill has been singing in the Brimbank Multicultural and Community Choir since it began more than 20 years ago and has personal experience of the mental health benefits of singing.  

“I have a disability, and I’ve been in hospital quite a few times over my life,” Sue says. “I had music therapy about 10 years ago. I was going through a deterioration in my physical disability, and things had totally changed for me. I had a music therapist brought in and we sang retro songs, which I love. That just really helped. Also, my psychologist said to me, ‘You know what you should do?’ She said, ‘You should record a really silly song about the things that have been happening to you.’ And I thought, ‘Are you insane?’ Because I was going through a really bad time where everything for me had changed.  

“I thought to myself, ‘Well, all right then. I’ll do that.’ So, Veronica and my best friend Lucy came into the hospital, and we recorded this song on my phone and I kept the phone recording the whole time, through us laughing and everything. So, every time I was feeling down about something, especially during that period of my life, I’d put that recording on and I would just be killing myself laughing.” 

Getting involved 

For people like Sue, who have come from a musical background, the idea of singing in a choir can come more easily. “It’s in my blood”, says Sue. Her father sang in her church choir growing up, and regularly performed at community events. But for others, finding a choir that suits their needs can be challenging.  

Nick Matherne is a PhD student at the University of Melbourne studying the reasons why people join choirs, and develop lifelong associations with them. “A word that comes up a lot in this research is about finding a group that is a good fit for you,” says Nick, “and it’s a balance of a number of things. It’s the amount of time you’re going to be able to put in, the musical level of the group itself, and then there is the social element – the other people in the group. For a lot of people, it’s hard to go along for the first time to decide that you’re going to join a new group. You don’t know what it’s going to be like.” 

As Karina Gough (and Douglas Adams) say – this is where banging heads together comes in. Whether it’s through connecting people online, from a personal introduction, or by seeing a choir perform at Fed Square and doing some internet investigation then going along to try it out, there are many and varied ways for people now to get involved and find – importantly – the right fit for them. 

For some, that may be joining a choir that performs four-part harmonies or complex poly-rhythmic or multi-tonal choral works of art; for others it’s a pint-in-hand with 2,500 other strangers belting out ABBA’s The Winner Takes it All. But, whatever the case, it’s about what makes people feel good. 

 “I get as much from what the audience is feeling as I do from doing it,” says Sue. “We used to sing at a lot of nursing homes. Just to see someone tap to something that they know, or to smile, and just recognise something – it just means as much to me as the singing itself.” 

And if you need a doctor’s advice, Dr Glasser has it: “Just sing. Everyone, every day, needs to sing.” 

Fed Square’s Christmas Choirs are on during the Festive Season. 

Kate Mulqueen

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