The rules of the English language can seem as iron-clad as Margaret Thatcher. When we learn how to write, most of us are taught the ‘rules’ – a sentence must express a complete thought, it needs a punctuation mark at the end of it, it should never start with ‘and’ or ‘but’, etc.
Soprano Tania de Jong AM recognises the power of the voice. The act of singing has been proven to make us happier, healthier, smarter and more creative, and Tania believes it is also fundamental in removing barriers between people.
Heartened by the growing popularity of community choirs but also concerned about the siloing nature of these groups, many of which are composed of individuals from similar backgrounds, Tania established With One Voice.
As part of her charity Creativity Australia, the With One Voice choirs unite people from diverse corners of the community and focus on building supportive networks for their participants.
Now in its eighth year, there are ten With One Voice choirs spread throughout Melbourne, with one in Sydney and another in Brisbane. Described as catering to nine to ninety year olds from all faiths, cultures and backgrounds, the choirs meet up weekly, with a small contribution being paid by those who can afford it. Some participants are sponsored by donations made to Creativity Australia and 68% of the choir members are subsidised.
Run by professional conductors, songs are chosen specifically to resonate with their particular group, with all songs being simple to follow. Kim Reynolds from Creativity Australia explains that there’s no audition process or prior experience needed.
“Very few With One Voice participants identify as ‘singers’,” Kim says. “They enjoy singing, but for one reason or another, they haven’t felt empowered to sing, or even worse, they believe that they can’t.”
With the brain’s right temporal lobe firing off endorphins during the act of singing, it’s a happiness feed that many of us have been cut off from. Perhaps you’ve been told you can’t carry a tune; Kim says that most people have heard this sort of criticism before and it’s why we shy away from singing. “Unfortunately this silences the most natural and unique part of ourselves,” she replies.
Finding their voices has been a life changing experience for many of the choir members. “I had bad anxiety, mainly from not working, which could have become depression if I hadn’t found With One Voice,” Julian says, adding that his wife has noticed a positive change in him since he joined. Neil, who is a carer who’s also battling his own health issues, relishes the choir meet ups as they allow him to do something fun for himself. “Some days I can’t make it because of my condition, but it’s worth the drive when I do,” he says. “I come out of there on such a high and I don’t get pain from my neuropathy most nights I sing. Everyone is welcome and although everyone is different we all are treated as equals. I really like that.”
For Leo, he’d been looking for a way to give back to the community. The With One Voice program also incorporates a wish list for participants to grant each other’s requests; everything from needing items like washing machines, to securing jobs, to wanting sponge cake baking lessons. Many of the wishes come true, with connections strengthening between participants as they help each other out.
Last year Creativity Australia partnered with Swinburne University for a program evaluation, with funding support by beyondblue and the Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy. Kim says that the findings around the wish list were particularly surprising.
“The wish granters were often the people we would typically define as disadvantaged,” Kim explains. “We identified that participants prefer to be viewed as the ‘giver’ rather than the ‘recipient’ of help, which indicates the importance of enabling individuals to give back to others and therefore see their value and worth as equals amongst a community.”
“It was also very encouraging to get the official results of what we already knew, that With One Voice delivered enhanced wellbeing, greater social inclusion and increased community support for participants,” she continues. “Incredibly 98% of participants experienced less stress, 91% improved social bonds and 66% feel less depressed.” Now that’s something to sing about!
First published in Slow magazine, Autumn 2016.
Photo courtesy of Creativity Australia.