Singing to nourish the soul

Posted by Lynne Morley, Thursday 1st January, 2015

Community singing is big news these days and there seems to be a choir to meet every need, from Military Wives to “Can’t Sing” Singers.
Yet when I started my own group, Soakin’ Sound, little did I realise how popular group singing was about to become, or the impact it was to have on people’s lives – including my own.

There is something both compelling and deeply satisfying about making music together – particularly with our voices. Increasing numbers of people are turning to singing for pleasure and relaxation.

Can music change lives – and is singing a means of self-discovery?

The short answer is – yes. Singing is good for us on so many levels. It can help improve posture, increase lung capacity and has been proved effective in the treatment of numerous conditions from stuttering to snoring. As a group activity, singing can bring people together, forging lasting friendships and giving a sense of purpose and achievement. Nothing can beat the “tingle factor” of singing in close harmony, or the unbridled joy of belting out a favourite tune – singing makes us happy. Music lifts the spirits and stirs deep emotions; as Ashkenazy once said, “Music takes over where words leave off.”

Sometimes, finding your voice can mean finding yourself. Following your passion and becoming totally absorbed in an activity – be it singing or any other pursuit – blocks out all other distractions, freeing you from “doing” and allowing you to concentrate on “being.” This allows the mind to focus on what is important and can lead to momentous decisions.

My personal “road to Damascus” occurred some four years ago, when a group of friends asked me to help form and coach a new singing group in Essex. They were not looking for a regular “choral society” or aiming for particular performance; the goal was simply to get together in a relaxed, supportive environment to experience the sheer joy of singing, perhaps for the first time. We began by practising in front rooms, before taking the plunge and hiring a hall – and Soakin’ Sound was born.

At the same time, I began attending residential workshops myself, travelling around the country and spending blissful weekends of a capella singing with inspiring tutors. Not only was I reassured that I was going along the right lines with Soakin’ Sound, but also I finally realised what I wanted to do with my life. I promptly went home, resigned from my office job and directed my energies into rebuilding my music career.

The Best Kind of Medicine

Anyone coming to Soakin’ Sound for the first time could be forgiven for thinking that they had walked into a Yoga or Tai Chi class by mistake – the workshops have that same holistic, therapeutic feel , especially at the beginning. A typical session begins with gentle stretches and breathing exercises to release tension in the whole body, particularly the shoulders, neck and facial muscles. We have a good yawn to relax and open the throat – singers should feel as if they do not have a throat at all. Finally, we will “test the engines” with swoops, runs and vocalisations before easing into a simple song. Good singing relies on attention to posture, engaging core muscles, deep breathing and relaxation; consequently it can produce both the “natural high” of an aerobic workout and the inner calm of a meditation class.

Our voices are as unique as our fingerprints , yet many people shy away from singing, believing that they are “tone deaf” or “can’t sing”. They were probably thrown out of a choir because they did not fit in, or could not reach the high notes. With the right training and encouragement, they could learn to sing harmony. At the other end of the scale, there are many famous musicians who claim not to be able to sing, yet they have made their fortunes doing just that! Singing is not always about having a “good voice” or needing a certain set of skills in order to participate; rather, it is about trying new things and getting the best out of the voice you already have. If we can overcome inhibitions and let the music take over, that in itself is therapy.

Soak it up and sing it out

Soakin’ Sound is so called because we originally met once a month in the village of Thorpe-le-Soken, Essex. The name also refers to the fact that the learning happens almost subconsciously. Everything is taught by ear, so no prior musical knowledge is required – although I do provide song sheets if requested. People arrive thinking that a capella singing is daunting, then are singing in glorious three or four part harmony before they know it!

There are three easy ways to do this: 1) pick three or four different songs that use the same chord progression and sing them at the same time; 2) sing the same tune starting on three different notes, producing “parallel chords”; or 3) sing the same melody a few steps behind each other – otherwise known as a round or canon.

All the songs we sing are unaccompanied and come from a wide variety of cultures, including Native American, African, and Eastern European as well as Western European, with styles ranging from folk to jazz and rock. I often write songs for the group and sometimes we will improvise. Harmonies can be simple or complex according to the needs of the group and the parts are repeated until everyone is confident. Nobody minds if people get lost or go wrong – it just makes the overall sound more interesting!

For some participants, Soakin’ Sound is a retreat, where they can forget the outside world for a while, and immerse themselves in music; for others, it is a safe haven, where they are free to experiment and make mistakes. One said “I sing to nourish my soul” and another confided, “This was not what I expected, but everything I hoped it would be.”

Above all, we sing because it is fun and makes us feel good. The words of our very own theme song – a four part round, of course – say it all:

“Soakin’ Sound, Soakin’ Sound

Can’t get enough of that Soakin’ Sound

“Soakin’ Sound, Soakin’ Sound

Gotta have a little more of that Soakin’ sound

“Soakin’ Sound, Soakin’ Sound

If you put it in a bottle you can carry it round

It’s the best kinda medicine that I’ve ever found

So soothe away your problems with Soakin’ Sound!”

© 2013 Lynne Morley

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Lynne Morley

GRSM (Hons) LRAM PGCE Mont.Dip

Lynne trained at the Royal Academy of Music and Middlesex University as a postgraduate, was the first British guitarist to gain a Level 3 Suzuki qualification and has recently passed the International Montessori diploma. She has taught for over twenty five years across the age range from pre-school to adults.

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