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Midlands Hospitals Choir prove a sing-song is just what the doctor ordered

Singing is good for your health, as a Midland hospital choir is proving. Roz Laws meets its members.

Singers of the Midlands Hospital Choir rehearsing at St Lawrence and St Faith’s Church ahead of their Birmingham Town Hall shows.
Singers of the Midlands Hospital Choir rehearsing at St Lawrence and St Faith’s Church ahead of their Birmingham Town Hall shows.

It's often said that a good sing-song is the best medicine to combat the stresses and strains of life.

Taking part in a choir has documented health benefits, plus it’s uplifting for the audience – and in the case of the Midlands Hospitals’ Choir, it directly helps children with cancer with its fund-raising.

The choir has been going strong for 32 years, with more than 20 of the members recently receiving long service medals for more than 25 years of singing.

Every year they put on two fund-raising concerts. Coming up is a Christmas celebration of carols and Bach music, performed twice at Birmingham Town Hall on the afternoon and evening of December 13.

Singing releases endorphins, the brain’s feel good chemicals, and the hormone oxytocin, which alleviates stress. Scientists have also discovered that choristers’ heartbeats synchronise when they sing together, bringing about a calming effect that is as beneficial as yoga.

A 2008 study revealed that choral singers rated their satisfaction with life higher than the general public. Another study found that after nursing home residents took part in a singing programme for a month, there were significant decreases in anxiety and depression levels.

Gareth Malone has brought great benefits to workplaces by forming choirs, such as one at Birmingham City Council, for his new BBC2 series The Choir: Sing While You Work.

Children’s social worker Siobhan Patton revealed how he had taught her to channel her emotions into her singing to release the pressure from her job.

Pam Salisbury is also well aware of the benefits of singing to a difficult job, as she works as a midwife at Birmingham Women’s Hospital.

Pam, 58, has been a member of the Midlands Hospitals’ Choir since it began 32 years ago.

“It was formed as part of a fund-raising drive for Sargent Cancer Care for Children, set up to remember choral conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent,” remembers Pam, who lives near Halesowen.

“Hospitals around the country were asked to form choirs. There was one in London and Manchester, and word went round to gather people together from Birmingham hospitals.

“Our first concert was at the Methodist Central Hall by the law courts. There were about 40 of us, but there are 162 singing in this year’s concert.

“Most of the original members were nurses, all wearing their hats and starched aprons.

“Uniforms aren’t as obvious now among the choristers. Partly because people wear more practical tops and trousers that don’t look as attractive on stage, but also because not so many members work at hospitals these days.

Singers of the Midlands Hospital Choir rehearsing at St Lawrence and St Faith’s Church ahead of their Birmingham Town Hall shows.
Singers of the Midlands Hospital Choir rehearsing at St Lawrence and St Faith’s Church ahead of their Birmingham Town Hall shows.
 

“It has never been a prerequisite to join but about a third of the membership still have some connection with health care.

“They range from receptionists, porters and nurses to social workers, anaesthetists, therapists and consultants.

“At one point we were going to call it the Birmingham Hospitals’ Choir, but we take people from a wider area than that. Plus people move away but still come back to sing with us.

“Half a dozen of us have been members since the very beginning, which shows how much we enjoy it and how much commitment there is to the choir.

“The concerts have become rather more spectacular over the years and I’d say we’re one of the better amateur choirs. People come back to watch year after year, so we must be doing something right.

“We’ve had the same conductor, David Lawrence, for the last 10 years.”

Now the choir raises up to £20,000 a year for CLIC Sargent, the UK’s leading charity for children with cancer. Most of the money stays in the Midlands and pays for social workers at Birmingham’s Children’s Hospital.

Last year the choir attained charitable status, which means it can raise more money from the Treasury through Gift Aid.

The choir alternates between appearing at the Town Hall and Symphony Hall at Christmas. As this year’s concert is at the smaller Town Hall, they are staging two shows.

There will be another concert in May to mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, where they will sing a specially commissioned piece, In Flanders Fields.

It will be held at the church where they rehearse weekly, St Lawrence and St Faith’s in Harborne. “We rehearse for 10 weeks before each concert, so it’s not a year-round commitment,” explains Pam.

“We don’t have auditions and anyone can join, but David Lawrence works very hard to make it as professional as possible.

“When I started we used to rehearse on a different night every week to make it easier to fit in with hospital shifts, but now it’s just every Thursday and we try to work our jobs around it. I will be taking annual leave on the day of the concerts.

“I see women through their pregnancies, which is usually a great experience, but sad things do happen and babies do die. The choir is important to me and is a nice escape from work.

“When the choir is singing together in harmony, it’s very special.”

A real tonic, one might say.

* Midlands Hospitals Choir: A Christmas Celebration, featuring the Gemini Brass ensemble, organist Julian Wilkins and guest Laura Wright, will perform at 3pm and 7.30pm at Birmingham Town Hall on December 13. For tickets ring 0121 345 0600 or go to www.thsh.co.uk .

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