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Articles

A Study of the Impact on Health and Wellbeing of Amateur Choir Singers as Face-to-Face Group Singing Moved Online

ABSTRACT

The purpose of this study was to examine and compare the perceived impact on the health and wellbeing experienced by amateur community choir singers as rehearsals moved from face-to-face to online during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 26 volunteer participants from an amateur community choir in Scotland completed an online questionnaire. An online focus group discussion followed with seven of the participants. Results reveal many positive impacts on the health and wellbeing of singers for both face-to-face and online group singing rehearsals. Each mode of rehearsal impacts positively in different ways, advocating the use of both to suit individual singers’ needs and aspirations. Significant drawbacks were identified that provide possible avenues to further improve the experiences of singers in both face-to-face and online singing rehearsals.

Introduction

In March 2020, the global pandemic of COVID-19 hit the shores of the United Kingdom. All group activities for work, education, and leisure were no longer considered safe environments, and face-to-face (F2F) music making had to cease with group singing considered as contributing to viral transmission (Miller et al. Citation2021). A viable alternative, to allow some form of music making to continue, was to move to online learning (Maxfield Citation2020; McCoy Citation2020). This research project compares the perceived experiences of adult amateur singers of one community choir as they transitioned online from F2F rehearsals in terms of the impact upon their health and wellbeing.

As music director of the Banchory Singers (BS) community choir, I considered it my responsibility to maintain our singing community through the periods of imposed lockdown, to help alleviate isolation and contribute positively to the health and wellbeing of members. It is based on anecdotal evidence from BS singers that this project was conceived as some found online rehearsing beneficial in terms of health and wellbeing, while others did not. The project aims to examine and compare the ways in which the two modes of group singing delivery are similar or different based upon the perceived experiences of BS choir members.

  • Is F2F group singing beneficial to the health and wellbeing of those participating in the activity and, if so, how does this compare with the online experience?

  • Are there significant drawbacks in either mode of delivery that could be addressed to make the experiences more meaningful in the future?

The learning outcomes of the project include:

  • understanding more fully the dynamics of BS choir so as to improve their group singing experience

  • understand the differences between face-to-face and online group singing in terms of impact on health and wellbeing

  • establish how I may be able to maximize the effectiveness of my practice in delivering group singing experiences in the future.

Literature Review

This literature review examines the research concerning general health and wellbeing benefits from music and group singing activities, then considers the growing body of the literature linking singing with therapeutic interventions and concludes with a brief review of online learning and group music making.

Music and Singing for Health and Wellbeing

Singing for health and wellbeing is a multidisciplinary research area and has been growing in the past two decades. Clift and Hancox (Citation2001) undertook one of the first exploratory studies to ascertain to what extent singers felt their health benefits from participating in a choir and revealed four main areas: social, emotional, physical, and spiritual benefits to health. There is, now, substantial evidence that group singing is beneficial for health and wellbeing irrespective of age, gender, nationality, or wellbeing status (Livesey et al. Citation2012). However, systematic reviews of the research reveal limitations of the current evidence (Dingle et al. Citation2019) and call for more research on those under-represented in the literature (Daykin et al. Citation2018).

While amateur solo singing has the potential to positively affect mood and release emotional tension (Grape et al. Citation2003), it appears that group singing exerts stronger influences (Schladt et al. Citation2017). Clift (Citation2012) lists benefits to wellbeing from group singing to include positive affect, group identity and social support, increase in self-confidence and self-esteem, physically energizing, releasing of tension, providing cognitive stimulation and improving breathing and voice quality. These benefits have been reported in other studies (Bullack et al. Citation2018; Moss, Lynch, and O’Donoghue Citation2018). In addition, participating in group singing enhances mood and improves emotional states, (Williams, Dingle, and Clift Citation2018) gives a feeling of being uplifted and has a social bonding effect (Camlin, Daffern, and Zeserson Citation2020).

Biological, psychological, and social factors may explain why these benefits are experienced (Gick and Cohen Citation2011). Deep breathing may help lower feelings of anxiety, as may the reduction in the stress hormone cortisol when singing (Fancourt et al. Citation2016). Group singing can cause an increase in the production of endorphins (Tarr, Launay, and Dunbar Citation2014) and this is thought to be what causes the “singer’s high,” that feeling of euphoria (Clift Citation2012) that follows performance and/or rehearsal. Group singing also activates two neurotransmitters, serotonin, which can help against depression, and dopamine, which activates the pleasure center of the brain (Babbitt Citation2018). Music can also be seen as “a psychoactive stimulant inducing physiological effects […] similar to those produced by pharmacological substances” (Kreutz, Murcia, and Bongard Citation2012, 457). Group activities, including singing, are known to have a positive effect on social connectedness (Bullack et al. Citation2018; Lonsdale and Day Citation2020; Maury and Rickard Citation2020). This may be explained in part by the communal working toward a goal, being part of the “superorganism” of the choir where there is a synchronization of respiration and heart rate, and participatory entrainment (Hayward Citation2014).

Music and Singing Used as a Therapeutic Intervention

The all-party parliamentary group on arts, health, and wellbeing report (Citation2017, 1) recognizes the contribution the arts may make and discusses how they may be used as an effective and inexpensive way of promoting health and wellbeing to address “a number of pressing issues faced by our health and social care systems.” There is a growing body of research documenting the benefits of group singing for those with mental health issues (Williams, Dingle, and Clift Citation2018), older people and those with dementia (Creech et al. Citation2013; Sakano et al. Citation2014) and other conditions, such as respiratory ailments (Goldenberg Citation2017; McNaughton et al. Citation2016).

Online Learning and Group Singing

Online learning is not a new phenomenon. It can be an effective learning environment, and there are many research journals devoted to its study. This “digital habitat” (Wenger, White, and Smith Citation2009) provides cost-effective opportunities for music learning, has a global reach, and can provide effective communities of practice (Kenny Citation2013). While virtual music lessons have been possible for some time using video conferencing apps, YouTube, and instruction videos, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many private teachers to consider how to move their entire teaching practice online (Igra Citation2020). Online group music making presents many musical and technological challenges that require creative solutions (McCoy Citation2020). The main challenge is that of time lag (latency) which means it is not possible to perform in time together simultaneously (Maxfield Citation2020). This presents the need to find innovative ways to allow singing activities to continue to “realize the myriad of benefits” it offers individuals (Young Citation2020, 1). The virtual choir concept, first developed by composer Eric Whitacre in 2009, creates the illusion that synchronous music making is possible in the online world, but these videos are compiled by solo singers who video their performances, which are then compiled using video editing software. The virtual choir reiterates how far away it is from live music making, and the “emotional sustenance, identity and sociality” of choir singing is missing from the experience (Datta Citation2020, 249).

Creating an effective group music making online experience is possible with a large amount of planning, and by generating appropriately useful recordings and videos and using the videoconferencing application successfully and imaginatively (Goodman Citation2020), and it is possible to have a successful online community singing program (Bolden Citation2014). There is limited research comparing the effectiveness of music making between face-to-face and online learning (Horspool and Yang Citation2010; King, Prior, and Waddington-Jones Citation2019). There is one report comparing adult group singing (for lung health) in both modes of delivery and the impact on health (Philip et al. Citation2020) and while it reports a significant drop in attendance when moved online, and digital barriers that needed to be overcome, there were indications that the online sessions reduced levels of depression. The report concludes by asking for more research to be undertaken in the area of online group singing with the wider population, and that in-depth qualitative research to explore participant experience will be valuable. It is hoped that this work-based project will contribute to this gap in the literature.

Methodology

This qualitative work-based project attempts to examine the perceived experiences of one community group of singers (Banchory Singers) as rehearsals move from F2F to online during the COVID-19 pandemic. The strategy of inquiry needs to be fit for purpose (Cohen, Manion, and Morrison Citation2007, 76). To compare the impact upon the health and wellbeing of different group singing modes of delivery, it is necessary to ask individuals to talk about their experiences, to describe how things are the same or different, and to explain to what extent experiences are similar or not. Examining singers’ experiences illuminates “the complex ways in which group singing might produce its benefits” (Camlin, Daffern, and Zeserson Citation2020, 2). This project, therefore, lies within the constructivist and interpretivist domain where multiple realities exist and where the aim is “understanding the world as others experience it” (Kawulich and Chilisa Citation2012, 59). Qualitative research is context-specific and can enhance the understanding of teaching and learning, providing opportunity to improve practice through the study of experience. A hermeneutic approach is used to interpret text with a view to understanding human lived experience (Kvale Citation1996). The use and meanings ascribed to language are interpreted in a “reconstruction of experience and knowledge” (Laverty Citation2003, 26).

Triangulation, to improve reliability of findings, is achieved through a literature review, use of an online questionnaire and an online focus group discussion. Research itself is “an inescapable ethical enterprise” (Cohen, Manion, and Morrison Citation2007, 49) and as such careful planning with ethical considerations at its core took place. Due to COVID-19 social distancing requirements, all data were collected online, thus ensuring participant safety. This convenient sample of 26 volunteer participants, taken from Banchory Singers (BS) choir members who had experienced both F2F and online group singing rehearsals, received an information sheet about the study, its purpose and intended methods and were given the opportunity to ask questions before completing a consent form.

Practice-led research allows me to create knowledge about, or within, my practice and this is highly motivating as I feel enabled and empowered to undertake research that will impact practice. Having been music director of this group for a considerable number of years and in a position of leadership, I was aware that some participants’ responses could be biased by giving responses to seek favor, or to not say what they feel for fear of recriminations. The anonymized questionnaire went some way to addressing this problem of the insider researcher. The focus group discussion was mediated by me, but I attempted to stay in the background as much as possible to allow the conversation to flow naturally, only interjecting to ensure all participants had the opportunity to talk. Use of reflexivity allows for some objectivity during the analysis and interpretation of the data, but the insider researcher does not need to apologize for the intimate engagement with the group being studied (Breen Citation2007, 163). It is because of the invested interest that more care may be taken to treat the data and its analysis with care and consideration as the results will directly impact upon the researcher and group being studied.

The questionnaire was piloted, adjusted to aid clarity of the questions, and was made available online using surveymonkey.com. The open questions required an extended response and asked for participants to describe if they felt their health and wellbeing had benefitted through group singing activities with possible areas for comment to include four themes from the research of Clift and Hancox (Citation2001) which were physical, emotional, spiritual, and social, to which I added cultural/musical and cognitive areas of personal experience. Providing headings for comment meant that respondents had clarity about some of the benefits previously reported in research, thus allowing for comparison with the literature, and presented a structure to help direct their considered responses. Use of themes also allowed for deductive analysis of the data enabling direct comparison with the number of times benefits were mentioned in F2F and online, but use of themes can cause bias and limit theme and theory development (Burnard et al. Citation2008). Inductive analysis also took place through systematic coding of the extended written responses generating “categories and explanations” (Jirwe Citation2011, 114) for further consideration, thus mirroring the research methods used by Clift and Hancox (Citation2001).

A focus group is an “interview style designed for small groups” (Berg Citation2001, 111) and while individual interviews may generate more ideas, the focus group can be a useful tool to uncover “sociocultural characteristics and processes” (Berg Citation2001, 111). They are useful for generating a “rich understanding of participants’ experiences” (Gill et al. Citation2008, 293) and work well with preexisting groups where familiarity facilitates discussion and “the ability to challenge each other comfortably” (Gill et al. Citation2008, 293). The online focus group had 7 volunteers, suggested as being around the optimum number (Denscombe Citation2003, 168), and they were accepted on a first come basis. The group discussion was mediated by me and I employed the “strategic use of silence” to allow participants time to think and reflect on what each had to say (Gill et al. Citation2008). The transcription of the discussion maintained confidentiality by disguising identities. Similar open questions from the questionnaire were asked of the group, thus allowing for further elucidation of themes that emerged from the questionnaire responses.

Presentation of Findings

Questionnaire Responses

Perceived Benefits from Group Singing

The online questionnaire was made available for a two-week period and was completed by 26 volunteer participants. Questions regarding the benefits of group singing included suggested areas for comment that had previously been found as perceived benefits to singers’ health and wellbeing from the Clift and Hancox (Citation2001) exploratory survey (physical, emotional, social, spiritual), to which I added further two areas (musical/cultural and cognitive) for possible reference in participants’ responses.

Deductive analysis of the participants’ comments was undertaken. After reading the responses, I collated whether reference had been made to one or more of the above areas. A comparative chart (see ) shows the positive benefits to health and wellbeing results for F2F and online group singing with each column representing the number of respondents who referred to each area in their questionnaire responses.

Figure 1. Comparison of positive benefits between F2F and online group community singing.

Figure 1. Comparison of positive benefits between F2F and online group community singing.

This chart shows that physical and social benefits were experienced as being the same across both modes of delivery, but there were significant drops in all other areas when moved online.

Inductive analysis of the extended responses took place by coding the data. I identified subthemes by collating similar-type phrases together that had approximately the same meaning and allocated a descriptive term or short phrase to these, such as “sense of belonging and part of a collective” and “maintenance of routine” to identify common themes running through the questionnaire responses. below shows the themes identified for F2F and online group singing benefits with the most mentioned at the top and decreasing in quantity to the least at the bottom.

Table 1. Themes identified for F2F and online group singing benefits.

All participants stated their health and wellbeing had benefitted in some way from F2F group singing. Twenty-four of 26 participants stated their health and wellbeing had benefitted in some way from online group singing with 2 stating they had experienced no benefit at all. It was a curious anomaly as the two participants who felt no benefit continued to attend the online group singing rehearsals.

Perceived Significant Drawbacks to Group Singing

All participants were asked to identify significant drawbacks to group singing they had experienced. Inductive analysis of the data was coded in the same way as for benefits. below shows the themes identified for significant drawbacks in F2F and online group singing with the most mentioned at the top and decreasing in quantity to the least at the bottom.

Table 2. Themes identified for F2F and online group singing drawbacks.

Focus Group Responses

Perceived Benefits from Group Singing

The online focus group was recorded, and the verbal exchanges transcribed. After several readings of the text, to become familiar with the content, I highlighted comments made that related to perceived benefits to health and wellbeing. Inductive analysis took place through coding of the data so that themes could be identified. below shows the themes identified for perceived benefits to health and wellbeing in F2F and online group singing with the most mentioned at the top and decreasing in quantity to the least at the bottom. I took into consideration the extent of enthusiasm and energy with which comments were made as I assumed this reflected the importance to the speaker and judged the amount of agreement between members of the group as a significant factor.

Table 3. Themes identified for perceived benefits to health and wellbeing.

Perceived Significant Drawbacks to Group Singing

All participants were asked to identify significant drawbacks to F2F and online group singing they had experienced. Inductive analysis of the data was coded in the same way as for benefits. below shows the themes identified for significant drawbacks in F2F and online group singing with the most mentioned at the top and decreasing in quantity to the least at the bottom.

Table 4. Themes identified for significant drawbacks.

Accessing Technology for Online Rehearsing

BS members transitioned to online group singing rehearsals in May 2020 and the following few months contained experimentation with the Zoom platform, various pieces of technology and applications/programs that could be used to enhance the online rehearsal experience for members. These months involved training and research into how to use devices, how to use Zoom effectively and support materials were created and distributed. By the time this research project started, most technology difficulties had been addressed and we had found the most satisfactory way of working online that we considered was currently available and within the abilities of the music director (MD). This may explain why there is limited mention of digital barriers in focus group responses, but it is still an issue for the group as it is one of the top recorded significant drawbacks in the questionnaire responses. The report by Philip et al. (Citation2020), where the group singing for lung health was moved online, identified significant drawbacks related to digital access and literacy. This reinforces the need for continued support for users if the online experience is to be beneficial.

The online platform allowed open access to anyone who wished to join in with group singing from any location and with any health issues. One BS member joined online from her hospital bed and others joined each week from across the UK and beyond. Accessibility does depend on users’ abilities to cope with the technology required to participate, and support was provided for any wishing to learn the basic skills needed. The global connection and accessibility were significant benefits identified by participants and again this may be explained by the impact of the pandemic upon everyone’s inability to get together and the desire to remain connected with others. Not only were people able to participate from any location but working toward the goal of a concert provided a sense of familiarity and purpose and gave a reason to continue singing to produce something to be shared across the globe:

Most of us have experienced pals, contacts around the country and beyond who’ve been in choirs, and their choirs have fizzled out […] they listen to me with some degree of envy that we have not only continued, but evolved […] and where they’ve got a vacuum, we’ve got something that is thriving.

Positive Affect, The “Singer’s High” And Physical Sound Vibrations

Feeling uplifted and energized, experiencing a sense of euphoria and buzz, being stimulated and feeling fulfilled feature highly in F2F perceived benefits experienced by participants, but much lower or not at all in online responses. It is well documented that live group singing can cause an increase in the production of endorphins (Tarr, Launay, and Dunbar Citation2014) and this is thought to contribute to the “singer’s high,” that feeling of euphoria that follows performance and/or rehearsal. The focus group discussion revealed that for some singers, the reward of the feelings of euphoria following live rehearsing acted as a motivator:

Oh, I wish I didn’t have to go out tonight, but once I’ve done it, once I’m there, then I would come home and go “zing,” to the point that some nights I couldn’t really sleep

The lasting effect and impact of the “singer’s high,” is memorable and sufficiently strong and perhaps accounts for why choirs continue to grow in popularity and size and have long and loyal membership. The main motivator to participate in leisure activities is one of the personal enjoyment and many singers report experiencing this “buzz,” this mood enhancer and stress relieving experience (Clift Citation2012; Grape et al. Citation2003). Several questionnaire responses stated that group singing allowed individuals to forget the worries and stresses of the day as they became all-enveloped in the act of communal singing, they went home feeling “lighter” and filled with joy, it was emotionally good for them, and it helped them find a good “head space.”

The focus group discussion revealed that the physical vibrations that the choir produce when singing together F2F is the most important benefit to health and wellbeing:

when we sing together, it’s not just the sound, which you know is so important … but I also think there’s vibrations come from the music we are making that go through us […] you feel it hitting you in the chest.

vibrations are a very real thing and there is no substitute for it […] we just really let rip and your soul soars […] and it’s visceral, inside, deep.

I was so fired up from […] that vibration that really goes through you when you are singing face to face, absolutely brilliant

Sound vibration therapies are reported as being beneficial in pain management (Lim et al. Citation2018) in alleviating symptoms of those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (Clements-Cortez Citation2019) and cerebral palsy (Kantor et al. Citation2019) and may also improve sense of wellbeing (Bieligmeyer, Helmert, and Vagedes Citation2018). Vibroacoustic therapy (VAT) is a recently emerging discipline and is a complex field of study drawing upon physiological, neurological, and biochemical mechanisms to explore its effects on human health (Bartel and Mosabbir Citation2021). Ultrasound therapy is used to treat various types of wounds, and there are many sound healing therapy techniques (Maman and Unsoeld Citation2008) many of which use Tibetan singing bowls. It may be unsurprising then that the impact of sound vibrations appears to be the most memorable benefit experienced from F2F group singing. You literally leave a rehearsal in a different physical state to how you arrived; your body has been actively changed through the process of group singing. It is documented that chemical alterations can occur in the body after group singing that can help against depression and activate the pleasure center of the brain, lower cortisol levels, and singing also activates the limbic system, associated with emotional responsiveness. This may account for some of the feelings that singers experience. But is it the vibrations themselves, both being produced and received by singers, that causes these changes to happen? This is an area for further investigation, but it is clear that the participants linked the vibrations (the “it hits me in the chest” sensations) with feelings of positive affect.

Online singing did not report these vibratory effects as each singer sang alone at home, and although some uplifting feelings were experienced by some it was generally considered a less satisfactory music experience and did not reap the same emotional benefits. It is also possible that during the pandemic because live singing was denied these singers, this may have heightened awareness of what had been taken away and greater appreciation and value attached to that which was lost in terms of the sound, its vibrations, and the tactile/kinesthetic response.

Being Part of a Collective: Group Singing

It must be remembered that this group is a community choir with no auditions required for membership, so a wide range of musical and vocal abilities are present. Several participants stated that in F2F rehearsals they felt vocally supported by the group, especially if they were a weaker singer, and this allowed them to contribute without drawing attention to their inadequacies. It also allowed others to sing with abandon, being swept along by all the other singing voices around them. One of the focus group participants described this as “surround sound” and was one of the identified significant drawbacks to online group singing, there being no group vocal support and no surround sound present, even though one participant did say that she found wearing headphones for online singing a wonderful experience as it “certainly helped me musically but there is also a feeling of peace and concentration which comes when you shut out external distractions.” Being a part of this live vocal “superorganism” with its synchronization of respiration and heart rate creates this collective singing spirit where all are working toward the same goal:

in a choir it’s togetherness and it’s supporting one another vocally. I need support and I need people around me to support me and I love the sound, the buzz of singing together and really singing out. Because you really sing out sometimes when you are in a crowd and that’s a wonderful experience and I have always loved that.

To be in a choir, singing together … it’s togetherness, it’s a body together, it’s like being propped up, you need those people beside you to keep you going.

Given that this research took place amid the COVID-19 pandemic and rehearsals online were thrust upon us, it had allowed BS choir members time to adjust to the “virtual habitat” and for rehearsals to evolve and provided much time for reflection. Almost every participant mentioned that online singing was not the same as F2F, which it can never be until further advancements are made with technology to allow for synchronous online music making. Even though multiple tracks of songs were recorded and used in rehearsals, including mixed audio tracks of members of BS, it was still highlighted as the main thing that was missed—that communal sound of many voices singing together. For some singers, not having that surround sound made for an unsatisfactory singing experience: face-to-face choir singing is a “co-occupation” activity but when moved online it became a “solitary occupation” (Jacob, Guptill, and Sumsion Citation2009) and was exposing and uncomfortable for many. Members had been encouraged to wear headphones as a way of simulating being surrounded by voices.

One participant said that F2F and online group singing had physically been beneficial in “helping in recovery from a serious heart attack and coping with resultant ongoing heart disease. Physically, singing was beneficial with regard to lung function, and general muscle tone.” This corroborates other research supporting singing as a therapeutic intervention for lung health (McNaughton et al. Citation2016).

Being Part of a Collective: Social Connectedness/Community

When Scandinavian choir singers were asked what they missed the most from no rehearsing or concerts in 2020, the main finding was that they missed the social dimension (Theorell et al. Citationforthcoming). The data from this research show that a sense of belonging, the participating in group fellowship and enjoying camaraderie were all perceived benefits from group singing and corroborates findings from other research (MacDonald, Kreutz, and Mitchell Citation2012; Moss, Lynch, and O’Donoghue Citation2018). While high in both F2F and online group singing, it was reported as being higher for the online singing experience. This is the opposite result reported for the singing for lung health (Philip et al. Citation2020) that moved online and was reported as being less effective socially. This may be explained by several related phenomena.

First, COIVD-19 put a stop to, not only group singing activities, but to all group socializing. Many BS singers live alone and during periods of lockdown they may have had no human contact at all, so the weekly online sessions were seen as “lifelines” by some and gave the week some structure, and for one “the choir was the only anchor we had through the week.” People needed some essence of normalness in their lives, and online BS rehearsing went some way to fulfilling this. Secondly, the video conferencing platform, Zoom, provided several useful features that were utilized to make the group singing experience as beneficial as possible. Being able to see all faces with names on a screen allowed members to “get to know” many more people in their collective than they could otherwise do when meeting F2F. There is only so much “free” time in a live rehearsal to allow members to mingle, and so most choir members would know a small group of people, usually those they sit and sing with each week. In addition, F2F rehearsals would normally be organized with everyone looking front toward the MD, so members only get to see the backs of singers’ heads. As MD, I introduced a slot in our online rehearsal time to allow single members of our community to share an experience with the group. We also used the breakout room facility and generated a random allocation of members to each room where people could interact and connect with each other. These technology tools were received by members extremely well and almost all mentioned that they now feel part of a “bigger collective” than before:

I now feel part of all those people. That sense of communal being has been established.

This period on Zoom […] has broken the traditional groupings down a lot. They now know those of us who haven’t been around for 30 years. They know us sufficiently to feel much more of a community spirit together.

It was also reported that use of the breakout rooms helped to “break down barriers that no-one wanted to create internal barriers. So now I feel part of a much bigger collective.” It is also worth pointing out that the focus group participants said the online platform gave a better, close-up view of the MD on the screen and this was especially useful when demonstrations were given. In F2F rehearsals, you might be very far away from the MD and not be able to see with such clarity.

The data reveals that because members have now experienced the social benefits of online group singing, they have been able to identify significant drawbacks with F2F rehearsing where new members may feel unintegrated, alone, or isolated. Coming into a readymade, long-established group can feel very intimidating, especially for those who already have anxiety issues, or may be less socially adept. Entering the group as an outsider takes courage and the focus group discussion recognized new members need to be welcomed and integrated into the group quickly. It is well documented that any group activity can help develop feelings of connectedness and may be useful as a therapeutic intervention for conditions such as depression (Boyd et al. Citation2020). Three participants in this research project revealed they suffer from mental health issues and specifically struggle to socialize. For two of them, the breakout rooms provided a smaller and less intimidating setting for the practice of social skills:

[Singing] helped me when recovering from acute mental illness […] I had become isolated through serious illness and was able to build on interactions week on week [to] increase my capacity to interact.

I just found it very difficult to talk to people, a lot of new people all at once, so zoom has actually made it easier for me to join in really.

Maintaining Routine

High on the positive impact on the health and wellbeing of online group singing was the need to maintain a routine. As mentioned above, the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic accounts for this being such a high priority for participants and explains why it was not mentioned as a F2F benefit. The data gathered shows that for some members of BS, the weekly (increased to bi-weekly) rehearsing provided that sense of normalness, gave something to look forward to, was a distraction from the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic and provided activities that could be practiced daily in anticipation of the next group meeting. Given the climate and context of this research, it might be said that singers felt fearful, uncertain, perhaps even unsafe. Even beyond the influence of the pandemic, many members of BS live alone, and rehearsals can provide security, sense of purpose and structure to the week.

Additional Significant Drawbacks

The identification of further significant drawbacks to health and wellbeing in F2F and online group singing allows for improvement to each mode of delivery to take place. This fulfills the aims of this research project by identifying ways in which to improve group singing experiences for BS and to enable greater understanding to maximize the effectiveness of my practice in the future.

Some of the drawbacks of F2F are physical in nature such as feeling physically uncomfortable because the venue is cold or having a health issue such as suffering from pain or effects of hormonal fluctuations. These can only be addressed if the issues are made known and some individual members do not wish to share such knowledge. A welcoming environment encouraging openness could be fostered so all can be as comfortable as possible to benefit fully from the group singing experience.

The stress of traveling to the rehearsal venue is very high on the priority list of respondents. Public transport is not always reliable or frequent, especially in less populated locations and in the evenings when most group singing rehearsals take place. Sharing lifts can be another option to lessen the stress of travel, but this is not always feasible. Online rehearsing is one solution for this group of singers.

Consensus is that online singing is much less vocally rewarding and leads to a less meaningful vocal and musical experience. As one of the focus group participants stated, “singing has taken a secondary role to our essence of community. For several participants, despite disliking making solo audio recordings of their singing for use in mixed tracks to simulate the choir sound, they also stated that the listening, assessing, identifying inaccuracies and continued practice helped their voices to improve in ways that F2F did not.

Participants found singing alone at home a lonely experience, they were not used to the sound of their solo voice because within the superorganism of the F2F choir their voice would mix with the others and not be heard in isolation. Singing solo made some feel exposed and uncomfortable. Listening back to recordings for some was very demotivating and negatively affected their wellbeing. Several participants also stated that they began to develop bad vocal habits by not singing properly, not singing out as they would in a F2F rehearsal and often were singing in a lazier way, described by one as “armchair singing.” This project compares the experiences of singers in one community’s adult choir as they moved to online singing sessions, so it is unsurprising that many felt exposed and vocally alone singing at home because they were used to singing with, and being supported vocally by, others. Perhaps there were members of the choir who did not practice singing at home in between F2F rehearsals and were unfamiliar with the sound of their live and recorded solo voice. Live group singing allows you to hide in the crowd, and while online singing does demand that you sing “solo,” by using headphones it is possible to be “surrounded” by other voices. Online singing is perhaps more meaningful to those who feel vocally more confident. The repertoire choices and whether these are in unison or in part may also impact wellbeing but was not part of this research project. The content and structure of successful online group singing rehearsing requires further research, but there are successful singing experiences currently taking place.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The aims of this work-based project were to compare the benefits and drawbacks perceived by amateur group singers between face-to-face and online singing rehearsing and uncover ways to maximize the effectiveness of my practice with group singing delivery in the future. Many benefits to health and wellbeing have been identified, and these are different in content and strength of impact for each mode of rehearsal (see the tables of findings above). While some significant drawbacks have been identified with each mode of rehearsing, some of these could be canceled out by using a hybrid rehearsal schedule (Circle and Hoppmann Citation2010).

compares F2F and online group singing in relation to concepts that impact health and wellbeing:

Table 5. F2F and online group singing in relation to concepts that impact health and wellbeing.

There are clear benefits to health and wellbeing from participating in both face-to-face and virtual group rehearsing, and there may be many applications for their continued and expanded use across communities. While a certain level of technical knowledge is required for online singing and an appropriate device through which to connect to rehearsals is needed, virtual rehearsing allows anyone from anywhere to participate irrespective of their age, location, ability, or mobility. It is environmentally friendly, allows singers to participate at different levels of commitment, and anonymously if wished. Sessions can be recorded and distributed, and it allows for rural communities and those who are isolated to come together within a “digital habitat.” This kind of online program could be rolled out in care and nursing homes, used as part of recovery strategies for different health issues, as well as to promote singing as a beneficial leisure activity. It has become clear from this study that because other voices can only be heard in a limited way (use of audio tracks), it may be better to rename online singing sessions; remove the term “group” from the title of the activity as there is no actual “group singing” experienced. There is exciting initial research, however, looking at the use of virtual reality technology to simulate group singing rehearsals (Daffern et al. Citation2019).

Some further areas of investigation have been raised in undertaking this research that could feed into future research projects:

  • Would similar results be achieved if this project had taken place out with the COVID-19 pandemic?

  • What effect does the music director have on the success of F2F and online group singing rehearsing? Are there certain characteristics present in the leader that bring about effective experiences for the singers in the group?

  • What would a successful online (or F2F) group singing session look like in terms of content, structure and repertoire? Could different formats of online group singing be trialed and compared?

  • Is it possible to tailor different kinds of online group singing opportunities to accommodate different groups of individuals in terms of musical aspirations, vocal abilities, health and wellbeing needs?

Continuing professional development is hugely challenging as scrutiny of actions leads to doubt and promotes further examination of practice (Dewey Citation1933). This research project has revealed several areas for change, implementation and further examination. Continuing professional development is very rewarding and the possibility of practice improvement acts as a motivator through difficult times, and I look forward to further challenges as my research journey continues.

Disclosure Statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Tara Leiper

Tara Leiper, DEd, runs an independent singing and piano teaching practice in the northeast of Scotland. She is a choral conductor, music examiner, and accompanist, and she is passionate about amateur and community music making. Since completing a DEd from Glasgow University with a thesis on the use of critical reflection as a tool in the teaching of singing, she is currently undertaking an MA in vocal pedagogy. She is coauthor with her husband of Is This Real? that tells of their lives living with schizophrenia.

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