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Sydneysiders' secret desire to sing – without the commitment

Many Sydneysiders either don’t sing, or they sing only in secret.

Singing was once part of everyday life, but it fell out of fashion for decades. But there’s a resurgence in communal singing around the world, and Sydney is no exception.

Many people enjoy singing in private, but haven't sung in a group since school.

Many people enjoy singing in private, but haven’t sung in a group since school.Credit:Shutterstock

While it’s always been possible to join a choir or a capella group – and you can find one through the Australian National Choral Association website – this often involves auditions, rehearsals and, well, commitment.

More in tune with our busy lives is the concept of the drop-in or pop-up choir.

It turns out there’s pent-up demand to sing in a group, something many of us haven’t done since school.

When the Sydney Opera House holds group singing sessions a few times a year, it usually sells out.

Sydney Flash Mob Choir usually packs out City Recital Hall in Angel Place once a month.

There’s even a singalong of sea shanties and Irish songs at the Dock Hotel in Redfern every Monday night.

You could also point to the popularity of karaoke or the singalong screenings to films such as The Sound of Music that are now a staple in revival cinema. But the biggest trend is about singing in a group, with a bit of musical tuition thrown in.

Riding this melodic wave is the Welcome Choir, which has been running in Newtown for more than two years and has just started up a satellite event in Casula, near Liverpool.

Participants in the Welcome Choir's Newtown event, held the first Tuesday of every month.

Participants in the Welcome Choir’s Newtown event, held the first Tuesday of every month.

I have been going almost since the beginning and loved it so much I helped the choir incorporate as a not-for-profit organisation earlier this year. So full disclosure: I am one of five directors, though this is an unpaid position.

The Welcome Choir is led by singer-songwriter Bek Jensen, who usually arranges a song in three-part harmony and teaches it to us on the night. Once it’s done, it’s done, and we move on to a new song at the next event – everything from the Beatles to Aretha Franklin.

The choir’s mission is to provide musical education and alleviate loneliness. It’s called the Welcome Choir because everyone is welcome – regardless of age, gender, sexuality, and even singing ability. Bek is adamant that everyone can sing – as long as you learn to listen.

Singing in a group is absurdly good for you.

She leads warm-up, teaches the song in its parts, then after a break we come back and sing the song three times together. She usually organises accompanying musicians.

It’s a euphoric experience when it all comes together at the end. You go home with your brain flooded with endorphins, feeling more connected to life, your fellow humans and the city we live in.

Bek Jensen, the musical director of the Welcome Choir, teaching a song at the Newtown event.

Bek Jensen, the musical director of the Welcome Choir, teaching a song at the Newtown event.

The Newtown event, which has a cover charge of $10, regularly attracts about 200 people. It’s at 7.30pm on the first Tuesday of every month at Miss Peaches, above the Marlborough Hotel on the corner of King Street and Missenden Road. It’s a private room with its own bar and staff – the main downside is it’s not wheelchair accessible.

At the next Newtown event on November 6, participants will sing Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now.

The spin-off event is at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre – an old power station transformed into an amazing (and accessible) arts centre and eatery, right near the train station. The first Casula event was last month and it’s planned to be repeated as a free event on the first Sunday of every month.

The next Casula event is coming up on November 4, at 2pm, featuring Alicia Key’s Empire State of Mind.

An art installation at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre.

An art installation at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre.Credit:Brendan Esposito

The great thing about singing in a group is the way the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Voices singing together in unison or harmony have a special sound we don't hear very often any more. You can sing out without being the focus, and if you’re unsure, you can just listen and let the group carry you.

It also turns out singing in a group is absurdly good for you.

Singing requires improved lung function, breathing awareness, and memory training, which all have other benefits for mental and physical health.

A 2016 study by Tenovus Cancer Care and the Royal College of Music, found people with cancer benefited from singing. Singing for an hour was associated with significant reductions in stress hormones, such as cortisol, and increases in proteins of the immune system that can boost the body's ability to fight serious illness.

A separate 2015 study by researchers at the University of Oxford found singing releases endorphins and provides a lasting mood boost.

The researchers found singing in a group accelerates social bonding. Apparently it’s such an effective ice-breaker it negates the need for personal knowledge gained through prolonged interaction.

No need for small talk, when you can sing.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons is the associate editor of The Sun-Herald and a regular columnist. Helen Pitt will return next week.

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