‘Singing has the power to transform your life,’ says James Sills, a musician, author, and vocal leader with a passion for bringing people together to sing. James believes that singing together is a fundamental part of being human, and that it fosters community, creativity and wellbeing.
Founder of the Wrexham One Love Choir, Wales’s first homeless choir, James is passionate about encouraging group singing as a way to make us feel more connected, less stressed and happier.
In 2020, James was awarded a Points Of Light Award from the UK government in recognition of his work to combat feelings of isolation during the Covid pandemic through The Sofa Singers, a twice-weekly singing session that brought together thousands of people from over sixty countries to sing together online. ‘It’s amazing, It’s all about sparking joy and human connection,’ he says.
James also delivers workshops for companies, groups and organisations across the UK, with a focus on inclusivity and confidence-building. Here he talks to Metro.co.uk about why singing will make you happy.
Why is singing together good for us?
Singing is good for our mental and physical health. Because you’re regulating your breathing through singing, it can help lower your blood pressure and alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety. Singing together also connects us. There’s a study from Oxford University that shows that singing is the greatest icebreaker of all. They studied adults doing evening classes, sports classes, art classes, and the people who sang together felt the most connected, the quickest.
Why do you feel connected when you sing together?
It’s about being part of something bigger than yourself and working together to create something beautiful. And the wonderful thing is, it doesn’t matter whether you think of yourself as a ‘good singer’ or not. It’s about being part of that collective experience.
Studies have shown that synchronous activities can help create deep social bonds, even among members of a group who hadn’t met previously. Singing together can be deeply transformative.
It’s about being part of something bigger than yourself and working together to create something beautiful.
Why is that?
The voice is one the most personal things that we have. When we’re upset, we ring someone and say: ‘I just wanted to hear your voice’. Our voice is our blueprint. And when our voice isn’t heard, either literally, or metaphorically, then there’s part of us that is also silenced, and part of our power is taken away from us. When we’re in an environment where we feel comfortable and supported to sing, it’s transformational. And I see this first hand, almost every day.
In what way?
I work with such a broad spectrum of individuals from CEOs of big companies, to people who are homeless or are in recovery, and it’s transformative for everybody, because everybody has a need to be heard. When your voice is recognised, it can be a catalyst for amazing things. People have told me that singing experiences have saved their lives, or been a springboard for massive changes in their lives.
Can you give me some examples of that?
I run a choir called Wrexham One Love Choir which is Wales’s first choir for people who’ve experienced homelessness and marginalisation. We sing together once a week, and straight after rehearsal, we eat together. There were several members of that group who said that it saved their life because it’s given them structure, a community and an outlet to express themselves. It’s given them an environment that’s positive and aspirational.
It’s not about sitting down and talking through your problems, but rather doing something collectively, and doing something that you’re incredibly proud of. There was a performance we did in 2018 at the International Eisteddfod, where several members woke up that morning on the streets and by the afternoon were on stage singing to 1000 people. Part of my mission as a vocal leader is to encourage more men to sing.
It’s not about sitting down and talking through your problems, but rather doing something collectively.
I find it shocking and disturbing that the most common cause of death for men in the UK under the age of forty is suicide. The many reasons for this are complex, of course, but an overriding factor seems to be the reluctance of men to talk about their feelings. We are told to button up; we are told to ‘man up’. We are not encouraged to open up or express ourselves.
To sing in a group is to make yourself vulnerable, and we know that, generally speaking, men are not always good at this. Singing in a group provides a healthy outlet where your voice can be heard.
What stops people from joining a singing group?
The biggest roadblock usually is people’s limiting beliefs about themselves and their voice, which usually have a foundation in something said to them at a young age, sometimes by a parent or someone else in authority, often a music teacher. As an ex-classroom music teacher, it makes me really sad.
There’s also a predominantly western view that singing is only for performance, which is reinforced by TV programmes like X Factor and Pop Idol. People feel that they’re not entitled to sing or they don’t have permission to sing, so they shut down, shut up and stop singing.
Part of my work is to try and help reframe singing as something healthy to do – like eating well, exercising and mindfulness. It’s trying to get people to make singing part of their lives.
But how do we do that?
Come and join Sofa Singers. It’s a twice-weekly singing session that has brought together thousands of people from over sixty countries to sing together online. I founded it in March 2020 as a response to Covid and the global self-isolation.
You join our community of over 500 singers and it’s online, so you don’t have to go anywhere. It’s led by me, so you’ve got a bit of guidance, but you’ve got the safety of the mute button, which obviously, you don’t have when you’re singing in the workshop or a choir. It’s a baby step.
Part of my work is to try and help reframe singing as something healthy to do – like eating well, exercising and mindfulness.
What songs are good for beginners?
Something that’s got a relatively small range of notes. When I’m doing one of my workshops, I might start off with songs that just uses three or four different notes. A lot of traditional folk songs, or spirituals songs are designed to be sung by people on mass, and are going to be easier to sing, than songs that are designed to be sung by a talented soloist. Try singing something like Sweet Caroline. There’s a reason that that’s become so popular at sport matches.
How did you start singing?
My first communal singing experience was on the football terraces with my dad, when I was five. I will never forget that feeling of being connected to him and to the hundreds of people around us.
Singing was a big part of my childhood and it connected me to those around me – like to my dad on the football terraces. Singing with my band at school connected me to my mates, singing with my village church choir connected me to my neighbours and my community.
I spent a year in West Africa in my mid 20s, in Ghana. It was then when the penny dropped about not just the importance of singing, but the importance of music to bring people together as community. That’s my real driver – to bring people together and help them feel connected and good through music. Everyone can benefit from singing – it’s fun, you’ll get a sense of achievement, it costs very little and it might just change your life.
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