No matter what you sound like, everyone can take advantage of the health benefits of choral groups.
SOMETHING HAPPENS when I play “Under Pressure” while driving my 4-year-old son to preschool: He turns into a pint-size Freddie Mercury, I become David Bowie mesmerizing the crowd, and we howl together at Let me out! At home, in our echoey hallway, we bellow Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” And on our basement treadmill, I’m the breathless, out-of-tune backup vocalist for Rihanna. I love how my spirit soars when I sing, how alive I feel. But until recently, I didn’t believe I had the right to impose my croaky voice upon the world. I hadn’t sung in public since summer camp in the late ’80s—and that, I thought, was as it should be.
Then I heard about a resurgent trend: choral groups. Not Gleeor Pitch Perfect–level singers, just regular folks coming together for the pleasure of making music. And it turned out there was a weekly “community sing” called the Madison Song Circle only a ten minute drive from where I live in Wisconsin. Checking it out online, I liked how friendly, nonjudgmental, and noncommittal it sounded: no tryouts, no fees, just drop in any time.
So one rainy night, I open the door to a coffee shop and am greeted by the uneven melody of a folk song I don’t recognize, coming from a circle of nearly 20 adults. Even though this is a city so liberal that it’s sometimes referred to as the People’s Republic of Madison, I’m not prepared for how earnest and crunchy the whole scene is. Some singers have guitars; most are wearing Birkenstocks and flannel and are at least a decade older than I am; they all look like they’re more familiar with Joan Baez than Beyoncé.
I get a glass of wine (thank goodness the café serves alcohol) and slink away from the circle. But Mary Ray Worley, the smiling, silver-haired song leader, beckons and invites me to pick the next tune. Nervously paging through a songbook with more than 1,000 titles, I land on “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” and we all launch in. Keeping my eyes focused intently on lyrics I know by heart, I barely whisper No New Year’s Day to celebrate. But by the time we get to the chorus, I’m lighter, freer, more relaxed—and it’s not just the wine. I belt the words with gusto.
Anyone who’s ever hallelujahed with a church choir or harmonized as a kid onstage knows how good it can feel to be part of a literal vocal majority, to give oneself over to the group and metaphysically ride the swell and pitch of the voices and tones in the room. But outside of a house of worship or a school auditorium, opportunities to sing with other people can be hard to come by if you don’t have golden pipes.
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