Mike W writes:

Like most people, I have an aversion to singing and have had for many years. It was different when we were kids, wasn’t it? We all sang like little angels, and had no self-consciousness about it at all. That’s what I remember, anyway. But then everything changes, and what followed (singing-wise) has been avoidance, fidgeting and embarrassment. Mouthing the words at a church service, say, but with nothing coming out. Looking like a fish, probably.

There was no avoidance at Monday night’s Natural Voice Singing class, and nor was there any embarrassment. You’re among friends at Orb and everyone’s rooting for you. If anything, I was guilty of over-confidence when I arrived, since I figured that what probably lay ahead were hearty renditions of the sort of sing-a-long classics everyone knows and loves.

In that regard, I had it all wrong. Welcome to the world of Natural Voice Singing.

Instead, after a few breathing and relaxation exercises, Emma immediately launched into a song I had never heard before. And in no time at all we were all on our feet and singing along. Or not, as the case may be. I floundered like a fish for a few moments, but there was no embarrassment. Such fears only permeate when we have time to think about them. But too much else was happening, like trying to remember the next line.

Zenwar De Dendee was the first song. Or was it Fire Fire? To me, half the titles were straight from Eurovision – Boom Bang A Bang, Ding A Dong, that sort of thing – and it sounded to my un-trained ear as though many of the songs were African, from the south sea islands perhaps, or gospel. Which figures, thinking about it.

Moments later, we were split into three groups and harmonising. It sounded…well, I thought it sounded magnificent actually…but then I’m biased. Since I was completely unfamiliar with each and every song, there was a little floundering each time at the very beginning. But you learn quickly enough, taking cues from those around you until you get the hang of it.

And then I was away: head back, chest out, eyes gazing yonder and a feeling of joy. I hadn’t felt this free and easy in my attempts to carry a tune since primary school, before the sweetness of my voice was silenced forever and replaced by a foghorn.

But Emma…why don’t we do familiar songs?

“A lot of traditional pop songs and choral pieces are built on a scale structure that are actually quite difficult for a lot of people to sing along to. So a lot of the songs you do on the Natural Voice circuit are older songs; they come from around the world and they’re either written especially for community singing groups, or they are songs that have been sung for years in communities that practice community singing.

“You get a lot of African songs, for example, and the harmony parts are based on a different scale structure, so it’s easier for people to join in and the songs break down into much smaller, accessible parts.

“People can sing a much more limited range of a song, but when you pull it all together, it sounds really phenomenal.

“We don’t learn a lot of popular songs that have been arranged for choirs because often it means people un-learning what they already know, and having to re-learn something.”

And where did that pure, joyous, feeling come from? “There’s a lot of evidence now that singing releases endorphins that gives you that feel-good factor.

“There’s been studies to show that when you sing together, your heart rate synchronises. What that does is help people feel a mutual connection, but it also helps to reduce anxiety and stress.

“It’s a mindful activity, so it’s something people feel really present in. I’ve had service users in other mental health groups say things like ‘it’s the only time in the week when my mind doesn’t race, when I don’t feel stressed about lots of other things’.”

Besides the mental health benefits, Emma says singing can also help respiratory conditions such as asthma and also muscular-skeletal problems, since there’s an emphasis on posture.

Moreover, it’s considered an aerobic activity, meaning you can even burn a few calories.

“A mood booster,” is how Emma sums it up. “Everyone’s trying to remember [the song] so the little groups work together and it helps people form close bonds really quickly.

“Each of the smaller groups contributes to something that sounds bigger than the sum of its parts, so you get a sense of achievement, it builds confidence and you get that sense of camaraderie.”

The Natural Voice Singing group is currently funded by a European Social Fund Community Grant: aimed at supporting people experiencing poor mental health, and currently unemployed or economically inactive, to engage in positive activity that promotes inclusion, developing skills and improving their life opportunities.