Choir singing, previously best known in church, is becoming increasingly popular, boosted by TV programmes such as Gareth Malone’s The Choir and the propensity of singing groups on Britain’s Got Talent.
While the feelgood effects of singing have long been recognised, there is growing evidence that it can have a positive impact on a range of physical and psychological conditions, leading to campaigns for singing on prescription.
In a number of studies, experts claimed that joining a choir could improve symptoms of Parkinson’s, depression and lung disease whilst Swedish research has suggested that singing not only increases oxygen levels in the blood, but triggers the release of ‘happy’ hormones such as oxytocin, which is thought to help lower stress levels and blood pressure.
All this comes as music to the ears of Flintshire-based James Sills a musician with a particular passion for bringing people together to sing.
“Singing is an amazing way of bringing people together,” says James, who is the musical director of two large community choirs and is a member of The Rough Island Band, a contemporary folk quartet based in the Isles of Scilly.
“It makes people feel good mentally and there’s lots of evidence that is good for you physically. We live in a fragmented world and this is a way of connecting people with each other.
“It’s definitely got that feelgood factor and that’s what interests me the most – bringing people together to have a really positive experience.”
Currently James, who lives on Hope Mountain, directs several open-access choirs across Wirral, Cheshire and North Wales with a specialism in a cappella (unaccompanied) singing.
“People leave with a smile on thier face and that’s their motivation for doing it really,” explains James, 35.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, everyone can feel the benefit. One of the choirs I work with is the Bebington Bitter Men which has the aim of getting men singing.
“We have about 30 guys and we sing sea shanties and drinking songs to dispel the notion that singing is a feminised activity.”
There are around 25,000 choirs in the UK, including school and church ensembles. Singing is the country’s most popular group activity after sport, figures show.
“I like to see myself as a kind of middleman,” laughs James. “I think everyone wants that communal experience. I grew up singing on the football terraces, but I also sang in a rock band and sang in churches so it came naturally to me.
“But for a lot of people they might have been told at school that they couldn’t sing or they might be put off by the X Factor and think they might be ridiculed if they get it wrong.
“My choirs don’t use musical notation because it puts people off and I try and avoid technical jargon so it is more of a human experience, as natural as walking.
“Loads of people claim they are tone deaf, but the actual number who cannot discriminate between notes is minimal.
“People forget we are singing all the time with the inflections of our voice which has high and low pitches.
“I realise it is a daunting prospect for most people, but that is the joy for me – getting people involved who think they can’t do it and then finding they can.”
Getting over that initial hurdle is the biggest problem for James whose other projects include the Countess of Chester Choir and Holt Village Voices.
“I see myself as being on a bit of a mission really,” he says.
“I fundraise for the homeless and work with the Choir With No Name which is a choral group for homeless and marginalised people.
“It’s really inspiring hearing people’s stories and seeing them growing in confidence and form friendships just from singing in the group.”
As a performer, James is a member of contemporary folk quartet, the Rough Island Band and the all-male a cappella troupe The Spooky Men’s Chorale, with whom he has performed at major European Festivals and on BBC Radio 2 & 3.
“It’s a mixture of beautiful songs and ridiculous comedy songs sung by 15 blokes,” he laughs.
“The mission of that group is to encourage more men to sing and hopefully I’ll be touring New Zealand with them next year which should be pretty fun.”
Closer to home, James, who is originally from Yorkshire, is enjoying his time in North Wales with this summer’s appearance at the Good Life Experience in Hawarden a particular highlight.
“We ran workshops in the Freedom Ale House on the Saturday and Sunday of the festival around our baby grand piano, rehearsing songs which we later performed,” he adds.
“We got great feedback and the best thing was having people come away saying ‘I never thought I would have sung in a choir’ – that’s the best thing you can hear.”
l For more information on James and his various choirs go to www.jamessillsmusic.co.uk