Choral music is not one of life’s frills. It’s something that goes to the very heart of our humanity, our sense of community, and our souls. These are the words of John Rutter, one of Britain’s greatest living composers, and one of my personal favourite musicians. His words summarize for me the very essence of what being in a choir is all about. His words are also an invitation, an invitation that in this article I recommend you take on board during your overseas or university experiences: join a choir and your life will be significantly enriched. “I’m not musical”, you say, and “I don’t like classical music” or even, “…but choirs are for old farts”, yes, some of what you say is true. Yet, choirs are perhaps one of the most grossly underappreciated and misunderstood institutions in the Western world, particularly in Australia. I’m here to change that for you today.
Instruments. There are so many to choose from should a Millennial choose to take up a hobby that doesn’t involve angry birds, endless crushing candies or, google forbid, spending endless hours investing in elusive cryptocurrencies. Lisa Simpson’s saxamaphone, guitars, piano, drums, and David’s harp – during my past four years at ANU I have seen many students invest their time and talents into these worthy avenues of musical expression. And I commend them for it. But being a member of the ANU Chamber Choir for the majority of my time on campus, I can tell you honestly that too many students fail to consider the instrument that costs nothing yet can be taken anywhere, even into the shower – our voices.
When I first started in the ANU Chamber Choir in 2015 there were six or seven of us. Six or seven. Do you know how many people were in the ANU Harry Potter Fan Club? Hundreds. I know why this is so. There is a stigma attached to choirs, especially choral or chamber choirs. They are considered old-fashioned. They are perceived as being the watering hole for religious zealots, club outcasts or musical Sheldons. Perhaps as bales of hay suffocate hay fever sufferers, to the Millennial choirs are dusty and deadly deterrents against modernism. This stigma is an imagined one. It is simply an easy excuse to dismiss the weekly rehearsals and the commitment that choirs demand. They are wrong to do so, for the rewards are bountiful. You see, each individual student at a university has a song. Whether this song is frustrated, weak, strong, depressed, joyous or Rastafarian – we all have a song. And when we open our mouths and express the contents of our song, our brains go crazy with endorphins – our bodies own happy drugs. Oxytocin is also released during singing, a natural hormone that releases anxiety and stress. Amazingly, oxytocin also enhances feelings of trust and bonding, which may explain studies have found that singing decreases feelings of depression and loneliness. How astounding! These facts are particularly interesting for Rutter, the composer I quoted at the beginning of this article. In 2001 Rutter’s student son Christopher was knocked down and killed in a freak road accident. For two years he hardly composed a note. Eventually, choral music itself helped him to rise out of the ashes as a musical phoenix and return to full time composing – culminating in him writing the musical score for Prince William and Kate’s wedding.
I too learnt about the benefits of choir from a personal yet not-so-tragic experience. During my 2017 exchange to Trinity College, Dublin, I found myself in an alien environment. Here I was on a campus with thousands of students I had never laid eyes on. As you will discover – if not already – many European and American universities in major cities have poor accommodation options for visiting exchange students. Therefore, it is likely that you, like me, will eventually settle on accommodation that is far from the main campus. This makes it difficult to socialize which then, in turn, increases the likelihood of loneliness. So, in my first week at Trinity I joined the forty-strong Trinity College Chapel Choir. To say I made a room full of friends on the first day may sound like an exaggeration, but it was true. And fitting in with Irish stereotypes, the first friend I made in the tenor section was, you guessed it, Patrick. Friendliness is vital in choirs because the unique focus on vocal harmony demands unity otherwise disharmony will naturally takeover. As such, members are normally genuinely interested and keen to have you on the team. And being an Australian or student from abroad only increases your magnetism in this new environment. Having a voice that doesn’t sound like a dying duck in a thunder storm – as my mother would say – is kind of a big help too. But it’s not everything. I’ll allow Rutter to explain why:
You see, when you sing, you express your soul in song. And when you get together with a group of other singers, it becomes more than the sum of the parts. All of those people are pouring out their hearts and souls in perfect harmony, which is kind of an emblem for what we need in this world, when so much of the world is at odds with itself…that just to express, in symbolic terms, what it’s like when human beings are in harmony. That’s a lesson for our times and for all time. I profoundly believe that.
Wow. Who would have thought the humble old choir was actually a socio-political phenomenon that binds us all together, stymies depression, combats loneliness and leaves us sauntering out of that hay-fever laden room high as a kite on our own natural wonder drug, oxytocin. The answer to all your social problems has been staring you in the face all this time, choir lavatory door ad after smelly choir lavatory door ad. For me, Rutter’s final words on the subject truly strike a chord about the personal and communal benefits from singing in larger groups:
And musical excellence is, of course, at the heart of it. But, even if a choir is not the greatest in the world, the fact that they are meeting together has a social value. It has a communal value. And I always say that a school without a choir is like a body without a soul. We have to have a soul in our lives. And everybody tells me, who has sung in a choir, that they feel better for doing it. That whatever the cares of the day, if they maybe meet after a long day’s school or work, that somehow you leave your troubles at the door. And when you’re sitting there, making music for a couple hours at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that matters at that moment. And you walk away refreshed. You walk away renewed. And that’s a value that goes just beyond the music itself.
Now don’t take Rutter’s advice as the final word. The miracle of choirs must be experienced personally. Listening to a choir doesn’t even cut the cake – that would be like going for a driving lesson but sitting in the passenger seat. To feel the rev and roar of the engine spine tingling your soul you’ve got to brave and buckle your seat belt up behind the wheel and, join a choir!
 John Rutter in ‘The Importance of Choir’, http://blogs.jwpepper.com/index.php/john-rutter-the-importance-of-choir/, accessed 29th March, 2018.
 ‘Singing Changes Your Brain’, http://ideas.time.com/2013/08/16/singing-changes-your-brain/, accessed 29th March, 2018.