The impact of singing by older choristers in church communities in North-West England: Social and spiritual implications

Howard, Damian (2023) The impact of singing by older choristers in church communities in North-West England: Social and spiritual implications. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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It is widely acknowledged that people are generally living longer and healthier lives (Habron et al., 2013: 1). Singing in a choir leads people to live healthier, happier, and more community-driven lives (DeNora, 2016: 6). Over the last twenty-five years, there has been a growing interest in the formation of choirs across the United Kingdom. Now across the UK, choirs, both sacred and secular, meet each week to routinely carry out a systematic process of regular performing of choral repertoire and music. The Singing Network Forum reported that 2.2 million Britons in 2021 were members of an estimated 40,000 choirs in the United Kingdom with 36% of community choirs representing the largest sector (Voices Now, 2017). Stacy et al. (2002) in their review of a relationship between singing-based initiatives and health, concluded that singing had both physiological and psychological benefits.

Choir singing is now in a place where it might be viewed not just as a hobby or a pastime, but as an activity which might benefit the well-being of an individual (Beth, 2009). Arguably, this practice has flourished within the work of the church for centuries. Indeed, the experience of ‘music as worship’ (Porter, 2017: 62), suggested as a broader term, allows for individuals to express themselves through a culture of church-related interest. Choral singing provides a greater value to the life of the individual, but its effects have been little explored. This thesis investigates the motivation for retired adults, aged 60-85 years, wanting to sing in a church choir and the perceived benefits that are attached socially as well as spiritually. Indeed, learning to sing is not just the acquiring of ‘a pleasant leisure activity but connecting with the world we inhabit in a fresh and life-giving way’ (Rowan Williams in; Boyce-Tillman, 2016: 407). The central purpose of this study is to express the merits of church musicking to the individual through the participatory activity of choiring. How it is a worthwhile in the later learning of older persons.

Within my qualitative project are findings related to the personal experiences of the older singers, (nine participants in total), extrapolated through in-depth interviews. Further themes relating to e.g., early backgrounds of choiring, confidence, the enjoyment of singing church music, the value of later learning and how these lead to positive (and negative) experiences in church-singing. Martin Seligman’s PERMA model also referred to as ‘the theory of well-being’ (2011) outlines five key pillars for flourishing and thriving in life and beyond. This theory based on the canons of positive psychology, is about understanding the conditions under which people thrive. These are represented in the following blocks: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. I believe these can be used through the associations of choiring to enhance well-being. The findings of this study indicate that in particular, church singing can be particularly a positive experience for older people and provides potential programs in the church setting that increase skills and abilities. Furthermore, it promotes others areas of well-being involving the social and spiritual and not focused on physical health as other studies might have indicated (Chavez et al: 2005).

The role of the Choral-Director I have found to be important in identifying these themes and crucial in the facilitation of positive learning. It is suggested that the qualitative essence within the blocks of PERMA can be used to facilitate more understanding and promote the idea of flourishing in older people through singing (Forbes and Bartlett: 2020; Lamont et al.: 2018).

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