Manchester’s Mental Health Choir talk singing, science & the Road to Wembley

I sat in on Bee Vocal, Manchester Mental Health Choir’s last rehearsal before their trip to Wembley to sing Blue Moon at the Community Shield match.

The atmosphere was like I remember from long ago, getting prepared for a school trip, with Dan McDwyer the Musical Director trying to bottle the excitement into the high standard that he demands.

Later I sat down with Dan, Laney Craig and Ged Mulherin, three of the team behind Bee Vocal. From here on in I’ll leave it to their words:

Dan McDywer (Choir Master)

“I’m a classically trained singer, with four years at the Royal Northern College of Music behind me. Now one of the things I do is run choirs and provide vocal training in schools and colleges. I try to make singing accessible to newcomers.

Whilst I work with the full choir, part of my work is one-to-one teaching with individual choir members. I guess it was whilst talking individually to some of the kids at Parrs Wood High School that some of their struggles with anxiety, sometimes self esteem and depression emerged. Their general wellbeing and social interaction.

Of course the Parrs Wood choir sang at the One Love concert after the Manchester Arena bomb. Some of the kids were actually at the Arena on the night of the attack and so anxiety levels were, of course, even higher. But I saw how singing together helped them cope much more, improved their wellbeing.

And so it started over a gin and tonic, chats with Ged, who’s an actor and runs workshops at SEN schools and colleges, Cherylee Houston…Izzy in Corrie… and a couple of other people.

Cherylee and Melissa Johns founded Triple C – the Creative Confidence Collective, which is a group of disabled and non-disabled creatives, focusing on changing access to the arts for children, young people and adults with disabilities.

Cherylee and Melissa Johns, along with Ged and Lydia Mulherin and Monique Jarrett, founded Triple C – the Creative Confidence Collective – which is a group of disabled and non-disabled creatives, focusing on changing access to the arts for children, young people and adults with disabilities.

The choir idea came together really quickly really. But we were missing an element…and that was Laney, who’s a psychology researcher at MMU and works with Joy Duxbury who is the Professor of Mental Health there. We had the gut feeling that forming a choir for people with mental health issues was a great idea, but Ged introduced us to Laney and it all crystalised very quickly.”

Ged Mulherin (Actor, workshop leader and co-founder of TripleC)

“We needed a good venue to meet and rehearse, to make people feel special. The Bridgewater Hall were brilliant in the help that they gave us right from the start. Triple C provided us with the contacts which led to a feature about the idea on Granada Reports. On the first night eighty people turned up. Which was amazing.

We had debated whether or not to include the words ‘mental health’ in the name of the choir, but very quickly decided that this would open the doors to anybody suffering from any form of mental challenge. If it was just Bee Vocal, then maybe people struggling would be apprehensive about coming along. Those two words made it very clear right from the start that all would be welcome, whatever their struggles.

Laney coming on board meant that we could begin to measure the effect and benefits that come from singing in a choir.”

Laney Craig (Graduate Psychologist)

“At MMU we are designing mental health interventions to help people with challenges. This is really because of the wave of drug prescriptions which are being made by GPs. I wanted to measure the differences made by singing in a choir. I was intrigued whether there was a difference or was it just a placebo.

People coming along to Bee Vocal are not just singing for a couple of hours. They form friendships of course and overcome anxieties. GPs use three measures to determine levels of depression, anxiety and wellbeing.

We collected this information from choir members in week one, week six and week twelve. By week twelve there was a huge difference. Depression and anxiety shot down, wellbeing increased.

One of our members hadn’t been out of her house for seven years, but said that something compelled her to come along. She’s recently completed her degree at university and says that she’s ‘got her life back.’

So OK, it does work. But why does it work? And what’s the difference between individual singing and choral singing?

Well, singing together releases endorphins in the brain – just like after a work out at the gym. A satisfied feeling. It reduces cortisone, which is the stress hormone in the brain. And it releases dopamine when singing collectively rather than individually. Dopamine and oxytocin are the love chemicals in the brain!

So we are building the science up about what choral singing does physiologically and neurologically in the brain. We have a lot of data to write the academic papers which we hope will support funding for more research.

And it’s magical when the choir come off stage after applause. They are full of emotional pride…lots of tears. They often say, “I did it! I did it! I’ve beaten it!” Their depression or anxiety or whatever voice has been telling them that they can’t do it. They’ve beaten that voice.

It’s such a magical moment for them. And we watch these people over maybe the next six months…they’ll be mental health champions at work, get a new job, finish their degree. Those are the magical moments I want to capture in the next set of research. To show how life changing singing in a choir can be.”

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