Music is the oldest language in the world and has the power to connect people at an emotional level says Helen Rees
A group of experienced professional Executive Assistants sit in a large hotel conference room each clutching a piece of paper. They have written words to express how they feel at this point: “anxious” … “nervous” … “don’t know what’s about to happen” … ”apprehensive”. They huddle at the back (nobody ever wants to sit in the front row) and look to each other for support of some kind.
This isn’t a dentist’s waiting room. This isn’t even a job interview. Or counselling. They’re about to step out of their comfort zone and start singing. With other people – not just by themselves, in the car or in the shower. Over the course of the next hour, they began to relax, smile, and really enjoy themselves. They forgot they were scared. They forgot they ‘couldn’t do it’, they ‘couldn’t sing’…
This is wellbeing in action. You’ve heard the scenario – your workplace has plans to introduce a wellbeing programme. Management recognises that there are activities which can help their employees gain balance in their lives, recharge their batteries, energise and re-engage with their co-workers. Because it can improve attendance, productivity, and reduce hours lost to sickness or stress related illness. Your company may offer gym membership, walking clubs, a book club… sound familiar? What about a choir? Yes. A choir. I can hear the collective intake of breath and the ‘No, no, no … we can’t do THAT! I can’t sing!’. Yes. You can.
Don’t believe me? Of course you don’t. Your school teacher told you that you couldn’t sing. Your parents maybe, or maybe later on your spouse. You believed them – and you chose to tell yourself that same story throughout your life. You’re not alone. Growing up, unless you happened to fit into a particular ‘musical’ category (which – by the way – was based on a very narrow view of what singing and choirs were ‘supposed’ to sound like), you weren’t a singer, you couldn’t sing. You’d never sing. School assemblies were an awkward mumble of collective apologetic sound, except for the standout soloists (we all knew one, didn’t we). And you’ve carried that belief with you ever since. “Oh my husband will divorce me if I start singing!” … “I only sing in the shower and even then not too loud or I might shatter the windows!” … “It’s a good job my car has soundproof windows!”. You joke about it.
Take a Chance
I’ve heard it all before. Many times. But I want you to imagine, just for a minute, that it might actually be possible for things to be different. What if you stopped thinking you couldn’t do it and chose to think differently? Could you persuade yourself you’re willing just to give it a go? And if you could believe that nothing terrible would happen if you did. Nothing is going to get broken, nobody’s going to laugh at you, run away, or scream in terror. Or divorce you.
Because that’s all it takes. I’m serious. A willingness to have a go. As the ‘Three Amigas’ (Susan Leahy, Anita Maginniss and Debbi Shaffer) urged us in their presentation at Executive Secretary Live (London), ‘Give yourself permission to participate’.
A Workplace Choir
So – a workplace choir. It’s actually a surprisingly simple, low-cost enterprise to set up. All you need is a room, some willing colleagues, and someone to lead your choir. If you don’t know of anyone directly who can lead the choir, contact your local education authority, your church network, or do a quick internet search for singing teachers or community choirs in your area.
While we’re here, let’s bust some myths about what your colleagues need as well. Because they will give these as reasons they can’t do it. Well – news for them. They don’t need to be able to read music. They don’t need to be able to ‘sing opera’ or even have a vocal range like Mariah Carey. All they need – honestly, ALL – is one hour in their week, and a willingness to take part. One member of our own workplace choir at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire said recently, about joining the choir: “I must admit I put it off for ages, but can honestly say thank you as it was the best decision ever!”. We have another choir member who suffers from severe anxiety – a qualified zookeeper, she’d wanted to join choir for a long time but struggled to make the first step. But one day she did. And now she sings with confidence, she’s loving it, and it’s helped her in work too. She recently gave a presentation on her experiences of anxiety, to a room full of 50 colleagues as part of the mental health initiative ‘Time to Talk’. Wow. That’s incredible – we are all so proud of her.
Your colleagues may need some persuading that singing is for them. They’ll have those same preconceptions about what ‘choir’ sounds like, or how singers behave on stage. It can take several interactions before they’re persuaded to give it a go. But among them you will find some enthusiastic willing participants – they are your champions. Find the extroverts, those who encourage and support others. And from every level of the organisation. Our choir includes executive directors, managers, team members, volunteers, students and even our Patron (our ex-Chairman of the Board of Trustees). Workplace choirs are great levellers – everyone is in it together, there are no hierarchical management structures.
Your colleagues will also tell you they don’t have time to join a choir – they are too busy. Of course they are. Everyone is. Workloads are ridiculous, deadlines are looming, that report won’t write itself. But they don’t realise yet that in the hour they spend singing, they are making connections with their colleagues, breaking down barriers, relaxing, decompressing and breathing. It’s truly uplifting. They’ll return to their work with renewed energy and productivity, maybe even some inspiration and ideas. And they’ll be smiling. I guarantee that.
Executive Secretary LIVE Choir
In London, twenty Executive Assistants gave themselves permission to participate, and give singing a try. We had just two, one-hour rehearsals, a backing track and my support and encouragement to get them from ‘anxious’ and ‘apprehensive’ to a place of ‘elated’ and ‘buzzing’ and ‘so proud’. We took Labi Siffre’s classic anthem of triumph over adversity ‘Something Inside So Strong’ (which I thought was apt for Assistants the world over, sometimes struggling to be heard, to be valued, to be respected, and for whom confidence and determination are the key to achieving their goals). Some had heard the song before, for others it was completely new, and the group included several people for whom English was not their first language. A few had some singing experience, but the majority would never have described themselves as singers at this point. They most certainly can now!
Through learning the song (by rote, repetition and practice), they grew from a timid mumble to a beautiful confident, warm sound, in less than 20 minutes. They surprised themselves. One of them went from “I’ll just sit on the sidelines and listen”, to “I’ll just sit in the back row and mime” to singing at full volume, all the words, with a big smile on her face. There were men in the group too – they hung on to each other like nervous toddlers on the first day of pre-school for about five minutes, after which they were fine. Getting men to join a choir, by the way, can be even more of a challenge – singing is very much seen as a female activity. But it isn’t.
Performing at the Gala Dinner
This new choir performed ‘Something Inside So Strong’ at the Executive Secretary Live gala dinner on the 35th floor of The Shard in London. The atmosphere was incredible. You could hear a pin drop. They breathed. They sang their hearts out. It gave me goosebumps. The whole room erupted at the end in spontaneous heartfelt applause. They felt euphoric – elated – accomplished – proud – thrilled. 48 hours previously they could not have imagined feeling like that from singing.
Over the next year we will take ‘Something Inside So Strong’ to all Executive Secretary Live conferences around the globe, giving Assistants this opportunity to share in a rather special project. Our performances are to be woven into a soundtrack for the next Isipho Admin fundraising video – spreading the message of confidence, positivity, collaboration, support and achievement around the world. By supporting Isipho in this way, we are giving Assistants a voice and an opportunity to raise each other up and show the world what we are capable of. As Peggy Vasquez so eloquently put it, “Ubuntu. I am because we are.”
And if this has inspired you to start a workplace choir in your own company, wherever you are in the world, you can be part of this too. I would love to hear from you – get in touch!