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Sing Sing Sing: The Aberdeen choir contest helping boost mental health

The annual event, organised by Fiona Kennedy and Laura Pike, has helped participants with mental and physical health issues.

The sheer joy of being part of a choir is captured in this image from Sing Sing Sing.
The sheer joy of being part of a choir is captured in this image from Sing Sing Sing.

Gene Kelly famously made a splash about the joy of singing in the rain.

But what about those with their own stories of singing through the pain, singing to ease the strain and singing to find their confidence again?

If you had visited St Stephen’s Church in Aberdeen last weekend, the  benefits of being involved in a choir, rubbing shoulders with kindred spirits and creating a joyful noise would have been as immediately apparent as the performances were life-affirming.

Music Hall will be packed with choirs

These myriad participants, of all ages and backgrounds, were preparing for tomorrow’s Sing Sing Sing event at the Music Hall, a historic venue which will come alive to the sound of a community choir competition, hosted by VSA’s honorary president Fiona Kennedy, alongside musical director Laura Pike.

The judges who will decide on the winning choir at the climax of the proceedings are royal composer Paul Mealor, the “Kilted Chef” Craig Wilson, renowned Scottish soprano Lisa Milne, and the director of Aberdeen City Music School, Kevin Kyle.

But, perhaps more importantly, the money generated from Sing, Sing, Sing – which has already raised tens of thousands of pounds since it was launched in 2016 – will go towards supporting VSA’s mental health services and helping vulnerable adults.

Aberdeen’s Music Hall will host Sing Sing Sing on Sunday, May 26. Pic: Sarah Bremner.

Fiona loves people joining forces and forming a connection through the universal language of music. But this occasion is about far more than just notes on pieces of sheet music; it is quite literally a platform for those involved to create songs in the key of life.

Some in the frame at the Music Hall have suffered privations and personal setbacks in recent years, which knocked them off their feet for a while. Others never imagined they would be in the spotlight, parading their talent in front of an audience.

But now, they have opened up about their journeys and told the Press and Journal how they derived new hope and confidence from being part of the Sing Sing Sing experience.

And, if you ever doubted the power of music, these tales are worth recounting.

Laura Pike is the musical director of “Sing Sing Sing” at The Music Hall on May 26. Pic: Darrell Benns.

Music played a part in Laura’s recovery

For her part, Laura seemed like a model professional as she boosted those around her and instructed the choir members to project their voices and produce beautiful music.

But it hasn’t been a straightforward path for the Aberdeen woman to reach this point.

She said: “As someone who suffered a stroke at the age of 31, and when I was 38 weeks pregnant, I know that if I didn’t have music in my life, then I wouldn’t have made the recovery that I did. With the use of music, as well as with language, it is critical for so many with brain injuries, memory and language issues.

‘Sing Sing Sing is a special event’

“While most activities such as visual art, computing and language largely work in only one hemisphere, music and especially singing is one of the few activities that stimulates both sides of the brain.

“The right brain, which is often considered the more subjective and creative hemisphere, focuses on the melody in music. The left hemisphere, considered the analytical part of the brain, is responsible for the understanding of musical structure.

“Sing Sing Sing is such a special event because it was created to make people feel better. As this has grown over the years, you can see that those who have been involved since the beginning have grown in confidence as well as ability, alongside meeting so many new people and sharing something very special.”

Laura Pike suffered a stroke at 31, but is now involved in “Sing Sing Sing” with Fiona Kennedy. Pic: Sarah Bremner.

Lorna Cassie is now retired, but the 60-year-old used to work for Aberdeen City Council and was intrigued when she received an email asking staff to take part in a new event.

And although she hadn’t been part of a choir since her schooldays in the Granite City, she signed up with the ACC ensemble Bonnie Achord in 2016 and was captivated by how the proceedings attracted so many people into a common positive, uplifting cause.

And these qualities helped her with a serious medical issue two years later.

It helped with my mental health

She said: “In 2018, following a routine mammogram, I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer when the rehearsals for Sing Sing Sing had already started.

“During this time, singing helped with my mental health, allowed me to focus on something positive and took my mind off my treatment.

“As well as the support or my family and friends, I also found being part of a choir definitely helped me through what was a difficult time.

Lorna Cassie has spoken about how “Sing Sing Sing” helped her through a cancer diagnosis. Pic: Darrell Benns.

“I have enjoyed being involved for eight years now and, even during lockdown when the event was cancelled, our amazing musical director, Laura Pike, kept some of us together on Zoom and we even sang in a car park.

“So I am really looking forward to the return of Sing Sing Sing  and performing at the Music Hall. For me, being in a choir is all about the love of singing, it’s about fun and friendship and also helping to raise funds for VSA, which is a wonderful organisation.”

There’s nobody who can’t sing

One of the messages spread by Fiona and Lorna is that, with the right attitude and approach to being in a choir, everybody has a role to play, even those who tell themselves they can’t sing or even carry a tune.

Granted, not everybody is going to be able to waltz centre stage and belt out Goldfinger like Shirley Bassey or What’s New Pussycat like Tom Jones, but that shouldn’t be a deterrent. And it definitely wasn’t in the case of Aberdeen woman Karen Hamilton.

The Kilted Chef, Craig Wilson, is a judge at “Sing Sing Sing”. Pic: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

She explained: “At a time in my life when I was struggling after the death of my husband, I was lucky enough to meet Laura at a gym and she introduced me to singing.

“It was something I never thought I would do. But I haven’t stopped since I started [in 2019]. And Laura is so right, it’s true that everyone can sing.

Singing has so many benefits

“It has given me so much laughter, companionship, new-found friendships and confidence and I know I am doing some good for the local communities and beyond.

“It’s absolutely inspirational being a part of Sing Sing Sing and I can’t speak too highly about it. I mean everything has improved in recent years – even my singing!”

Lisa Ferguson has done academic work, highlighting the benefits of community singing. Pic: Darrell Benns.

Talking to these different individuals is a reminder of the power of arts and culture, whether you have ambitions to appear on stage or simply sing in the shower.

Indeed, there’s increasing evidence that events such as Sing Sing Sing have a beneficial impact on both mental and physical health – which is one reason why Lisa Ferguson is doing a study into the subject, even as she continues her own vocal career.

The Aberdeen woman has dyslexia, but once again, that has been no impediment to her speaking insightfully and intelligently about how her life has been enhanced by music.

It’s the biggest passion for me

She said: “Singing has become my biggest passion, goal, and achievement. In recent years, I have completed a first-class honours degree with a focus on community music engagement and group singing.

“I’ve looked at how it can benefit different communities as well as how it can help build new bonds and friendships through community music engagement and singing. I am now studying for my master’s degree in the same field.

Karen Hamilton found solace in being part of a choir after the death of her husband. Pic: Darrell Benns.

“I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to be involved in Sing Sing Sing, hosted and run by Laura and Fiona. This really helped me understand my own practice as a community music facilitator as well as remind me of my passion for choir and group singing.

“This event truly encompasses the fundamentals of community music as it brings so many different choirs together to not only celebrate singing but highlight and celebrate the amazing work and services that VSA provides across the entirety of Aberdeen.

You’ll not regret joining a choir

“Everyone has the right and ability to engage in music participation. I also believe that singing and music can help you express emotions, and express our heart’s desires as well as process moments of difficulty or celebration within our lives.

“Singing can also provide physical and mental health benefits and there are many studies available that show how it can help with things like lung capacity, blood flow, memory function and encourages endorphins or the feel-good chemicals to be released.

“For me, singing just makes me feel better, as if someone has hugged my soul.”

Some of the participants in “Sing Sing Sing” get ready for their big night on May 26. Pic: Darrell Benns.

The latter is a wonderful description and underlines how this Sing Sing Sing initiative isn’t merely offering those involved a platform for a special night, but a chance to enter a new world of possibilities.

As Fiona said: “Every group performs two songs and then there is a mass choir where everybody comes together. It is an uplifting and emotional evening, and some of these people have never sung in public before, let alone in front of a big crowd.

It’s a special kind of magic

“The joy of singing and harmonising with others can take you to another place and away from worries and cares. When a song comes together beautifully, it feels like magic.

“Sing Sing Sing” offers hundreds of people the chance to perform together. Pic: Darrell Benns.

“The thrill of walking on to the stage as a choir to sing in front of an audience is both exhilarating and scary in equal measure.

“All the rehearsals seem very worthwhile, great friendships have been made, and usually everyone wants to do it all again!”

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