Life Lessons from Choral Singers
In addition to enriching musical knowledge and enhancing vocal technique, singing in a chorus can also teach important lessons about life itself. We reached out to the growing network of choruses specifically for older adults, and asked longtime singers about the ways in which singing has informed other aspects of their lives.
Capital Encore Chorale, Washington DC
Choral singing has not only affected my personal life, but my professional life as well. I’ve always been involved in the education of young children. I was a teacher for a while, then I went into school administration. Now I am a leadership coach. I work with educators who are already leaders and want to be better leaders.
I started thinking about the warm-ups that we do at the beginning of every choral rehearsal, and realized that everyone does warm-ups whether you’re an athlete or a singer or whatever. So why is it in leadership training that we don’t do warm-ups?
Recently I was working with a team from a school. The group was so tense. I said “Just turn to the person next to you and gently massage the trapezius muscles on their back.” The change was instantly transformational. That was kind of a wake-up call for me. Now, I don’t have all the people in all my groups put their hands on each other because that would be uncomfortable for some people. But as I go around working with my clients, a part of all of the trainings that I do is about the power and importance of breathing. How do you breathe? Where are your shoulders?
I’ve realized that if you’re going to be a strong leader, you need to be relaxed yourself and not so tense that you’re not able to hear and respond to the people that you are talking with. When you’re singing, you’re in a very vulnerable spot. Well, that’s true in leadership too, whether you are leading yourself or leading others. Singing makes me mindfully conscious of the ways in which it’s important to be aware of your physical self as you are interacting with other people.
Janice and George Ralph
Silvertones Senior Choir, Fort Collins, Colorado
Janice: My real life lesson has to do with realizing how short life is and how we should enjoy every minute of it. Make every day a song.
In our choir, I sit in the last row and we are a huge group – we are a hundred and seventy people at this point. There are six rows full of people in front of me. There are times when I look out over that group and I see all of our grey heads and of course some with no hair at all. But I see us when we were 17, I see us in that a cappella choir I was in in high school with our bodies so able and our voices so strong and I reflect on how quickly time has passed and how you should live every day and just enjoy what you are doing every day.
George: When I started at the University of Illinois, my major was civil engineering. And the U of I is arguably the best civil engineering school in the United States. So any reasonably intelligent person might think it necessary to study in order to graduate. And the operative words there being reasonably intelligent, because I did not study and I flunked out.
And fortunately for me, a friend told me about his major in forest products. And for some reason they allowed me to enroll even though I had flunked out of civil engineering. As they say, the rest is history – I made the dean’s list every semester after that and graduated with honors.
Now, what does this have to do with choir? Well, about the same time this same friend introduced me to the church choir where I met Janice. So I’ve always connected the two very important events in my life. And I’m often reminded that when one door closes, another one opens.
To take that one step further, we’ve moved nine times since college. And after most of those moves, we’ve joined a chorus where we’ve inevitably made friends, good friends. So again, you walk away from some friends and close that door although you stay in touch, but it’s an opportunity to make new friends at that new choir.
Capital Encore Chorale, Washington DC
I sang for most of my youth and as a young adult. And then for twenty or more years, after working and raising my daughter and all of that, I didn’t sing for the longest time, except at church on Sunday. I knew I didn’t have the voice I used to have when I was younger.
When I was turning 60, I saw some information about the Encore Chorale and I said to my husband, “This is what I want for my 60th birthday gift. I want to join this group.” And on the day of my 60th birthday, I was at my first Encore Chorale rehearsal.
I’ve done a lot of great things in my life. I’ve had an incredible life. And this is at the top of the list.
The best part is that last season, my husband joined another ensemble within the Encore program. He had never sung before in his life except in church on Sundays – and barely even then because he thought he couldn’t sing. And when he was standing on the stage performing, he told me that tears came to his eyes because that moment touched him so deeply. He felt the impact that performing has on the singers and on the people in the audience. It touches people in a very deep way.
I never expected to hit the notes that I’m hitting again in life. I hit a note and think, did that come out of me? I’m 64 this year, and I’m singing such high notes, I don’t believe it. It reminds me that maybe there are other things I should be doing, because it opens up the realization that if I can hit that note, God knows what else I can do.
Singing shows us that the possibilities are endless. Just when you think you’re wrapping it up, you realize that’s not true, you’re not wrapping it up. You have the potential to expand into new worlds, new frontiers.
Evanston Encore Chorale, Evanston, Illinois
I’m active in a number of organizations and causes. We have an election here tomorrow and I’m working for three different candidates. Volunteerism and activism gives you a feeling of accomplishment and contribution. Singing does that too, but with singing you also get something else—solace is one word I use. It’s a place you can go and leave everything else behind. A chorus is kind of a fraternity or sorority of people who are all there because they share this love. It’s a fun place to be and a comforting place to be.
I think the experience of being in a choral group, where people have varying levels of musicianship and different kinds of personalities, reinforces your people skills. Being part of a choral group has helped me be more tolerant, perhaps, and to be a better listener.
I joined the North Shore Harmonizers, one of the groups I currently sing with, about 25 years ago. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I soon came to the realization that my marriage was coming to an end. Being part of a group where I felt welcome was very, very important to me in making some difficult decisions and managing some things in my personal life. Just having a place to go, one night a week, among people who are not judgmental, who don’t need to know everything that’s going on in your life, is a comfort. And if there is something going on that you need some space for, they’re more than happy to provide it.
There’s a tolerance in a choral group that perhaps you don’t always find in other social settings. I think that maybe it’s because of the emotion and the high that you feel when everybody nails a song that you’ve been working on for weeks. There’s just something special in that.
Anne Arundel Community College Encore Chorale, Arnold, Maryland
I don’t think there’s ever been a time since grade school in New York City when I haven’t sung in a choral group. In almost every singing experience the consistent objective was to get better and better—to make ever more perfect music. I always felt a degree of tension, wanting to emulate the outstanding singers and not let down the rest of the group in any way.
In joining Encore, I am now part of a community of singers that invites anybody to come and sing regardless of prior experience or expertise. In some unexpected ways, I find it’s intimate and more forgiving. And not at the expense of the art. The art is in the presence of so many dedicated, excited and enthusiastic people who sing together because they love to sing. It’s a very different mindset. It’s the flip side of making more perfect music.
There are the elements of choral singing that we all work on: learning how to breathe, how to hold one’s body, how to read music ahead of where one is singing. It involves all of those skills coming together. While Encore encourages and pushes us to do our best, I experience a reduction in pressure and an acceptance of the fact that others may be “better” or may not have the same level of experience, tone or skill. And it is all really ok.
Encore enables us to forgive our own musical mistakes more easily and to trust the natural forgiveness in the group. We rely on each other; we risk making mistakes; and we move beyond the tension so we can simply learn to sing together.
I think it’s similar to what we experience as we get older. We don’t care as much about making an impression. We’re freer to be who we are.
Encore Chorale of Reston, Reston, Virginia
Joining a chorus is taking on a fresh challenge especially if, like me, you had not tried to sing in a long time. At any point in your life, it’s energizing to do something outside your comfort zone because that’s what promotes growth.
As we get older, we tend to rest on the skills or knowledge that we’ve stored up. I think that when we’re younger we’re always learning new things, we’re always being presented with challenges, we’re always on a learning curve. When I started singing again, I had to “throw my hat over the fence” and then go get it. I was putting myself out there, but that’s what keeps me energized and growing.
I’ve also learned that because music is very emotional, it gives us a way to express a huge range of feelings that are sometimes locked down. It’s not that those feeling are repressed or anything, it’s just that we don’t have occasion to express a lot of the feelings that we have inside. Music is a wonderful outlet for that, and a way to be more attuned to our feelings.
We’re singing a medley from Les Misérables for our spring concert and some of us can hardly get through it without crying because the emotions are so strong. And of course you can’t sing when you are crying! But it’s good that music calls forth these strong emotions in us, and then of course we share that with the audience. Those shared emotions, that connection, that response that happens between singers and their audiences is a magical thing, and a really valuable thing on both sides.
Hinsdale Encore Chorale, Hinsdale, Illinois
One of the things that has burdened me in the past year is that the best friend I have ever had died after 24 years of a very close friendship. He died of ALS disease. It’s one of those little harbingers of mortality. And so the whole idea of making connections and keeping up connections with others has become vitally important to me. And choral singing is a really lovely way to do that.
It’s about meeting with these people and singing beautiful music that feels good to sing. There’s a certain coordination and a fellowship with the singers and the directors and the pianist and all that. And the audience, too. When we perform, they are listening, but in a way, we are them and they are us. We sing to them, and they listen, and they respond to us in a way that lets us know what they think of what we’ve just done.
My life lesson I guess is that we are not alone in life. We are in our own skin, but so is everybody else. So the way I often think of it is that we are alone, but we are alone together. And that paradox is what human beings have always been trying to find a way to manage. The paradox of being alone in your own skin and having your own experiences but it turns out everybody else is also alone in their own skin and having their own experiences.
So we are all doing the same thing. And when we do it in concert with one another, the isolating aspect isn’t so isolating and we have a feeling of fellowship. Singing is one of the things that helps us learn that we’re not so lonely in this experience, we’re actually in quite good company.
Arlington Heights Encore Chorale, Arlington Heights, Illinois
"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts." While each individual voice in a chorus has a certain level of talent, when those voices are blended and raised together as one, the result is magnified beyond the average of those individual levels. The same is true when leading or working within other groups to accomplish a goal. The sum of the individual ideas and inputs, when added together, go beyond the average thinking or contributions with a result that exceeds expectations.
A corollary to this is "Never underestimate the value of all contributors." While singing is the primary outcome of choral work, it is important to appreciate and recognize the efforts of those who perform such tasks as ordering risers for the concert, designing a beautiful, informative WEB page, keeping the library of music, paying the bills and so on. When these things are done and done well they enhance the choral experience for all. This is very applicable to managing a household, performing well at work, or participating in other activities, such as sports. Those who serve behind the scenes are very necessary to the success of the group and deserve recognition and appreciation for their efforts.
Schweinhaut Encore Chorale, Silver Springs, Maryland
I came up with six life lessons that have come to me through singing. The first one is that I’ve learned to recognize that things change. When I first started singing, I was a first soprano and through the years my voice has changed so that now I sing exclusively second soprano.
I’ve also learned to experience the joy that music brings into my life. Regardless of situations in the world politically or socially, for 90 minutes every Monday morning, I can set those issues aside and focus on blending my voice with other singers to create beautiful music.
Singing has helped me recognize the importance of preparation. I work on the music between rehearsals using the practice CDs that we are provided with and sometimes I even record rehearsals and make CDs so that I can listen to them as well. Whether we’re singing at the Kennedy Center or the Senior Center or another cultural arts center, preparation is very necessary and key to a successful performance.
I believe that it’s important to continue to accept challenges. Probably one of my most challenging skills is memorization as I grow older, so I’m trying to develop skills to assist in the memorizing of music.
I’ve learned to be able to express my gratitude for still being able to participate. I am a four-year breast cancer survivor and I still have normal hearing and vision and I still have the physical ability to move around so I am very grateful for that.
And the last lesson that singing has taught me is that I am able to appreciate the universality of music. I am able to join with people of various backgrounds and life experiences to create something beautiful together.
Giving Voice Chorus, MacPhail Music for Life, Minneapolis, Minnesota
(Editor’s note: Giving Voice Chorus works with singers living with Alzheimer’s and their care partners. Marvin Lofquist lives with mild stage Alzheimer’s disease.)
With my Alzheimer's l am learning that I need to live in the now. Music allows me to give my best physical and emotional expression of this new now.
What I am realizing is that now music is one of the few things that still matters to me. It is part of my current sense of being. Can I remember when my hand was useful to me? No, it is me. It is part of my soul, it is part is my essential self. Music tells me I am in the moment. I can create now. I do not remember what specifically brought me joy or insight at past moments. Those memories are gone from my ability to recall them. But what I do remember is that singing was always a part of my path to being in the now, living the moment.
Doing something with others can be described as working, helping, or doing. Singing as a group activity requires a lot of attention to what other members are doing.
Music has a physicality that melds my mind and muscles. Music has a flow that carries our attention from note to note. Its tonal movement goads our body to mimic its pace and intensity.
The mantra at our Giving Voice Chorus is "there is no wrong in this room" and that can be applied to our lives as well.