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Searching for a healthy hobby? Try joining a choir

Jeremy Reynolds
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — Laughter erupted as members of the Pittsburgh Concert Chorale warmed up their voices and lips with scales and raspberries at Ingomar United Methodist Church. Then the choir got down to business as wisecracking director Susan Medley drilled the singers on harmony and rhythm with an infectious sense of merriment.

The chorus is just one of many community choirs around the city that exist for the sheer joy of singing. Membership has risen lately to about 100 singers ranging in age from recent college graduates to retirees in their 80s. Some have sung professionally, but most are amateurs. They come from all over the area and from various political backgrounds.

It’s no secret that America’s social fabric is unraveling. Participation in churches and religious institutions is down. Fraternal organizations are shrinking. Marriage rates continue to decline. Voting is up, but volunteering is down. The differences dividing us seem greater than the similarities.

Increased participation: Yet group singing is gaining popularity. While participation in church choirs is declining, more than 17% of adults in the U.S. participate in a choir of some sort, up from 14% in 2008. That’s about 1 in 6 adults, according to a recent study by the service organization Chorus America.

The study identifies numerous reasons: Singing in groups has been linked to better mental and physical health, a sense of belonging and feeling connected to others, better social skills, increased civic engagement and volunteering, developing leadership skills and much more.

“Increasingly, people are thinking about constructive ways to bridge some of the gaps between people, and they’re looking at issues that exist in societies today,” said Liza Beth, vice president of communications and membership at Chorus America.

“How can this art form that we love contribute to healthy vibrant aging? The people who love this also see this as a really important tool to address things they see in society.”

She said choirs are springing up around the country dedicated to serving specific areas such as hospice facilities, aging adults or homeless people.

Locally, choral groups ranging from community to professional have reported increased attendance or applications, and new choirs are forming all the time.

Innovation: Stewart Copeland, former drummer of The Police, has partnered with the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh to create a new oratorio, “Satan’s Fall.” The new work follows Lucifer’s fall from grace as imagined by John Milton in “Paradise Lost” and will premiere on Friday and Saturday at the Roxian Theater in McKees Rocks.

This collaboration is another in a string of creative programming by the Mendelssohn, which has also presented a Bob Dylan oratorio and a concert exploring Pittsburgh’s Underground Railroad connections.

The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh is preparing to launch a new initiative to create grassroots choirs in senior centers. Then there’s the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Camerata, Renaissance City Choir, the Voice Givers Choir, Greater Harmony Chorus, Belle Voci, Pittsburgh Threshold Choir, Sounds of Pittsburgh, Vocal Confluence and others.

“There’s a real sense of family there, a real sense of community,” said Matthew Mehaffey, music director of the Mendelssohn, which has a core group of 20 paid singers and about 100 others. The choir regularly performs with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

“There’s always a group that heads for a happy hour after rehearsals on Wednesday, and everybody is incredibly welcoming to new members,” he said.

At the Pittsburgh Concert Chorale’s weekly rehearsal, Medley mixed disciplined practice (“Let’s check that chord!”), aerobic exercise (“Stand up … now sit down! … Stand again!”) and lighthearted banter to keep things moving (“If you’re absolutely terrified of singing that high B, please email me later”).

“They’re a great group. If I asked them to sing on their head they would,” said Medley, also director of choral activities at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington County. “Choir singing is this unique tradition that gives people a place to belong. You don’t need training. It’s just about making something positive and beautiful with friends.”

‘Here to make music’: Most of the amateur organizations rehearse just once a week in the evening. Many members started singing in grade school or high school or a church choir, but singing in a community choir doesn’t require formal training. Just a low-pressure audition with the director and a willingness to be a team player.

“People run the gamut politically, but we leave that at the door,” Medley said. “We’re here to make music.”

The Chorus America study found that older choral singers reported a better quality of life and better overall health than non-singers they knew. Nearly three-quarters of choir members said singing helps them feel less alone or lonely.

“One of the most striking findings in our study was that choral singers are more likely to volunteer and serve in leadership positions. It’s a hugely civically engaged population,” Beth said.

Bernie Heisey has sung with the Mendelssohn and Bach choirs and is currently a member of the Pittsburgh Concert Chorale.

“I can have a terrible day, but coming to choir practice just makes it better,” she said. “Being around these people is the highlight of my week.”

The singers in the Concert Chorale and the Mendelssohn Choir represent a diverse array of occupations, including doctors, lawyers and engineers. Some join for a brief period; others make it a lifelong passion. A few have met significant others or spouses in choirs. Some members tour overseas; the Concert Chorale plans to visit Leipzig, Salzburg and Vienna in 2021.

“I think people are looking for meaning in the world,” Mehaffey said. “To have the chance if you’re not in a creative field to come and make something beautiful that you couldn’t make by yourself — there’s something immediate and visceral about choirs. The breathing becomes synchronized. It’s almost spiritual.”