How I found improved health and happiness by joining a choir

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1 January 1970

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Fiona Fraser overcomes her pandemic panic and discovers a harmonious hobby. She shares why joining a choir was good for her soul.

The first time I opened my mouth at choir, the sound that came out was entirely unappealing.

It was July 2020, and after seven weeks of lockdown – which gave me more time to reflect on life than I’d possibly ever desired – one thing became crystal clear. I needed more hobbies.

Just one hobby, actually. Anything would do. Hitherto, and particularly while cooped up with family, my interests had included Netflix and drinking. So I mined the depths of my memory for all the things I used to love: gymnastics (nope, leotards are out of the question in your forties), soap collecting (I can’t believe this was even a hobby – who in their right mind amasses more than 200 coloured soaps shaped as goldfish, clowns and butterflies?) and singing.

During school, I’d been quite the singer. In 1990, the Southland Girls’ High School Show Choir was considered groundbreaking – a Glee type of arrangement where we travelled by bus to some of New Zealand’s finest public spaces (The Octagon! The steps of Parliament!) and belted out Huey Lewis and Michael Jackson numbers to our adoring public. We even had our own sound system and branded tracksuits.

So when I showed up at a meeting to gauge interest in forming a Hawke’s Bay Soul Choir, I naturally assumed that the intervening years since “Hip To Be Square” had been kind, and I’d still be able to hold a tune.

Resoundingly not the case.

My voice was dreadful – sort of breathy and screechy and course, like the elderly possum in the tree outside our bedroom. Instead of feeling ecstatic at singing again, I was deflated and anxious. I mean, what if someone heard me?! Which, as we all know, is the entire point of performing in a choir.

Also, there was: So. Much. Standing. We were off our chairs more than we were on them, balancing on two feet (the high-heeled boots I’d worn on night one were hopeless), moving from side to side as we practised harmonies for “I Can See Clearly Now”. I’d fidget, rub my aching legs, I possibly scowled a fair bit. I’ve always loved to sit.

And crying. Was it the trauma of lockdown, the fear that Covid was still just one super-spreader event (hmm, like a choir rehearsing in a small church hall) away from resurfacing? In our first few months together, 60 voices in four-part harmony singing beloved Motown and disco tunes, it felt like a celebration of the sheer joy of being alive. Only every time we started rehearsing “O-o-h Child” by The Five Stairsteps, tears would prick at my eyes and a lump would settle in my throat.

In our first few months together… it felt like a celebration of the sheer joy of being alive

“Ooh child, things are gonna get easier. Ooh child, things will get brighter.” Some evenings, I’d have to excuse myself and go to the bathroom to weep. “Some day, we’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun. Some day, when the world is much brighter.”

My mind would churn – how could my small business survive? Would my husband’s band work again? Would our child ever travel? And would the world once again be the bright place the song promised in its lyrics?

By the time December rolled around, we were singing “September”. Our choirmaster’s arrangement, full of dips and dives, challenging harmonies and soaring choruses, is super difficult to navigate, but he was convinced we were good enough at it – and the rest of our small repertoire – for a Christmas concert.

My husband (a seasoned professional musician) and son (a hardcore hip-hop enthusiast) didn’t seem thrilled at being dragged along to watch my Soul Choir and, to be honest, I wasn’t actually that comfortable singing for them. During a recent road trip to Taupō, I’d used the time to rehearse in the car, which my son still tells me is one of the most mortifying things I’ve ever done in his presence.

Still, they were there – as was the Mayor of Hastings! – and midway through a rollicking Stevie Wonder version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” I realised they (and in fact everyone, including me) were having a great time.

It’s no secret that singing can have a positive impact on stress levels, but as I approach the end of my first year in the Soul Choir, I can certainly attest to feeling radically calmer after a couple of hours of singing on a Monday night.

No matter how icy the old wood-panelled hall is, or how bone-tired I am, as soon as we’re through our weekly warm-up, I’m feeling motivated, less melancholy. Happier.

Singing has helped me rediscover other qualities, too: tolerance, stickability, empathy, responsibility.

There’s a unique pleasure in singing with men and women aged from 18 to 80, sharing in a love of a special type of music – and from that, surprising friendships have been born as I’ve connected with people from every walk of life.

Better still, now I actually have a hobby – one I don’t need a corkscrew or a leotard to enjoy.

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