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Community Choruses: Singing and Happiness


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Now a story about happiness, specifically the happiness that one of our music commentators found not far from home. Here is Michelle Mercer.


I recently joined my local community chorus, the Harmonium Choral Society of Madison, New Jersey. This 80-voice ensemble sings interesting, eclectic repertoire and is open by audition only. So I was happy when I made the group...

(Soundbite of warm-up vocal exercises by group)

MERCER: ...but not as happy as my fellow choristers, it turned out. During rehearsals they're often as giddy as sugar-high preadolescents.

(Soundbite of warm-up session)

Dr. ANN MATLACK (Harmonium Director): We'll actually speak in massages today. OK, massage, that way.

MERCER: That's Harmonium's long-term director, Dr. Ann Matlack, leading us in a conga line group massage, part of our standard warm-up.

(Soundbite of warm-up session)

Dr. MATLACK: Now let's switch.

MERCER: This merry camaraderie made me a little uneasy, and after a few rehearsals I realized why. Cults also use singing to build happiness and community. I had joined the church of happy harmonizers.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

Harmonium Choral Society: (Singing) I have a flood in my house, come see.

MERCER: You probably know a chorus singer or two. Their wardrobes include a lot of music-themed T-shirts and tote bags. They have a habit of breaking out into song mid-sentence. These are the people who try to get you to sing "Happy Birthday" in a round, or at the very least in six-part harmony.

(Soundbite of "Happy Birthday")

Harmonium Choral Society: (Singing) Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, dear Julia. Happy birthday to you.

MERCER: Chorus humor is very Mensa and inside. In rehearsal singers will bust up at the well-timed mention of a difficult scale.

(Soundbite of rehearsal)

Dr. MATLACK: And on that happy note we will sing an octotonic scale starting on C.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Harmonium Choral Society: (Singing) I love to sing.

Dr. MATLACK: Go ahead and use your arms.

Harmonium Choral Society: (Singing) I love to sing.

MERCER: It turns out there may be physiological reasons for choristers' ecstatic happiness. A few years ago University of Manchester researchers discovered that the sacculus, an organ in the inner ear, responds to low-frequency, high-intensity sounds like singing. The sacculus is connected to a part of the brain that registers pleasure, so you get immediate pleasure when you sing, even alone. When you sing with a choir the joy is multiplied.

Like most Harmonium members, Murray Spiegel doesn't want to discuss his sacculus. He's just thrilled to have found his own kind.

Mr. MURRAY SPIEGEL (Harmonium Choral Society Member): I felt at home instantly. I love the fact that everybody's enthusiastic, very welcoming, very joyous about what they're doing, and that's the type of person I am.

MERCER: Harmonium Director Ann Matlack likes to feature challenging repertoire. She says members enjoy striving for excellence.

Dr. MATLACK: To me, it's a lifestyle of active participation in the arts, not passive, but active. What we do in rehearsal is hard work and that's why they come. They don't come to sort of lay back and, you know, hit the remote.

(Soundbite of rehearsal)

Harmonium Choral Society Sopranos: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

Dr. MATLACK: Sopranos, wait, wait--if it's a written invitation you want. OK, ready.

Harmonium Choral Society Sopranos: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

Dr. MATLACK: You're dragging. (Singing) ...(Unintelligible). Go.

Harmonium Choral Society Sopranos: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

Dr. MATLACK: Good.

MERCER: Rehearsals do become more rigorous and disciplined as we near a performance. I find an almost archaic satisfaction in this effort, as does alto Mariam Bora.

Ms. MARIAM BORA (Harmonium Choral Society Member): When you completely do a song and it just clicks, you know that you've worked hard for this and it's just amazing--an amazing feeling.

MERCER: But there's more to the joy of choral singing than goofy fun or a rewarding work ethic. For its 25th anniversary concert last spring, Harmonium commissioned member bass Jabez van Cleef to write a poem about the choral experience, which composer Edie Hill set to music.

(Soundbite of "There is No Age")

Harmonium Choral Society: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

MERCER: In "There is No Age," Jabez says he tried to articulate the altered sense of time and space that singers sometimes have in performance.

Mr. JABEZ VAN CLEEF (Harmonium Choral Society Member): Getting out of your music and being in a place that is in some peculiar way out in the middle of the air halfway between where the chorus is standing and where the audience is sitting is what we're all after. We want to get up and out of ourselves and collectively occupy that space. In order to do that, something happens where we forget about how much time is going by.

(Soundbite of "We Beheld Once Again the Stars")

Harmonium Choral Society: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible).

MERCER: My first performance with Harmonium was this past December in a Morristown, New Jersey, church. We sang a contemporary piece by composer Randall Stroup, "We Beheld Once Again the Stars." The music is set to a section of Dante's "Divine Comedy." During this piece I finally got it. When you submit to an ensemble, streamlining your own voice to the mass of sound around you, you lose your ego and your sense of separation from others. That's singing's deepest, most convincing happiness, I think, the real reason choristers keep coming back for more. And as long as there's music I'm glad to be one of them.

(Soundbite of "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day")

Harmonium Choral Society: (Singing) Sing oh, my love, oh, my love, my love, my love. This have I done for my true love.

BLOCK: Commentator Michelle Mercer sings alto in the Harmonium Choral Society of Madison, New Jersey.

(Soundbite of "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day")

Harmonium Choral Society: (Singing) ...fleshly substance; thus was I knit to man's nature, to call my true love to my dance. Sing oh, my love, oh, my love, my love, my love. This have I done for my true love. Sing, oh, my love. Sing, oh, my love. In manger laid and wrapped I was, so very poor, this was my chance, betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass, to call my true love to my dance. Sing oh, my love, oh, my love, my love, my love. This have I done for my true love. Sing, oh, my love. Sing, oh, my love.

Solo Soprano: (Singing) Tomorrow shall be my dancing day; I would my true love did so chance to see the legend... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michelle Mercer