The reason Charlotte O’Connell is looking forward to performing with her choir at Melbourne’s Palais Theatre this week is deeply personal.
The group will be singing a song with Meg Washington, whose music Ms O’Connell used to listen to with her mother before she died.
Ms O’Connell also met the singer when she was being treated at the Royal Children’s Hospital in 2011.
She described the choir’s rehearsals of the song, which is also written by Washington, as a “full circle moment”.
“Singing Lazarus Drug … was really emotional. It did take me a couple of practises to get through it without crying,” she said.
The 27-year-old joined the Melbourne Indie Voices choir last month, returning to singing for the first time since her parents died.
“My dad passed on in 2011 and my mum in 2015. In 2011, I was in high school, that was probably the last time I was in a choir,” she said.
“To be back singing it, it honestly feels like I’m connecting with or healing my inner child in a sense, which has been really beautiful. I think there’s definitely a healing element through singing too.”
Ms O’Connell said she wanted to join a community again following the isolation of Melbourne’s pandemic lockdowns.
“Due to having a bit of social anxiety after COVID, it kind of gave me the kick up the bum that I needed to get back out there and speak to others,” she said.
“It pushed me to go up to other people and say hi, which I normally never would have done.”
Ms O’Connell described the first time she sang with the choir as a “euphoric moment”.
“It wasn’t just the sound of everyone singing, but it was looking around and seeing people kind of bopping and dancing,” she said.
“I remember coming home and feeling like I was on some sort of high.
“It was really amazing and I definitely think it’s been conducive to my overall mental happiness improving.”
From a handful of singers in a lounge room to 400 members
Melbourne Indie Voices artistic director Phia Exiner started the choir in her lounge room in Fitzroy in 2016, when she invited people on social media to sing Surrender by Ballpark Music.
Her partner, Joshua Teicher, is the choir’s technical director and has accompanied the singers on guitar since that first rehearsal.
“It sounded amazing … it just grew very organically, we very quickly outgrew the lounge room,” Ms Exiner said.
The choir, which now has 400 members, performs Ms Exiner’s arrangements of modern indie songs that are a far-cry from the tunes of traditional choirs.
“The music choice is everything. It’s something that’s deeply personal for me, I only choose songs I love,” she said.
“A lot of people in choir used to sing in high school, and then they went to uni and it wasn’t so easy, or once you’re out of school it feels like you can only do musical theatre or choirs in church settings.
“So when it’s music they might listen to on community radio or triple j, I think that feels very grounding for people.”
In 2019, the choir performed two sold out shows at the Forum with Mark Lang and Jen Cloher.
They’ve performed with other musicians including Angie McMahon, Ainslie Wills and Clare Bowditch, and sang as part of the launch of Ms Exiner’s album at the Melbourne Recital Centre in June.
But the upcoming show at the Palais Theatre will be the choir’s first headline performance since pandemic lockdowns were lifted in Melbourne.
Ms Exiner said one of the main reasons people join is the sense of connection they get from making music together.
“It’s a community. You might not know anyone there but in fact you’ve already got a connection, which is that you want to join the choir, you want to sing, you have a similar interest in music,” she said.
Group singing’s ‘deep emotional effect’
University of Melbourne creative and performing arts professor Jane Davidson said singing in a group offered many psychological benefits.
“The fact that we’re singing music that has a deep emotional effect on us — often music that makes us feel good about ourselves and helps the other people in the room — it has what is known as fast social bonding potential,” she said.
“We think that comes from the origins of music and the way it was used for comfort and in lullabies.
“We have evolved to use music as this mechanism for emotional regulation and closeness.”
Professor Davidson said singing had a distinct physiological impact by increasing people’s heart rate and causing a release of endorphins.
She said she had worked with music therapists to help people experiencing “extreme crises” in relation to their mental health.
Professor Davidson described the positive impact of music on those people’s wellbeing as “remarkable”.
Focus on wellbeing, not just music
Ms O’Connell, who has epilepsy and a bone condition that limits her mobility, said she has had difficulties finding accessible hobbies in the past.
She said it was reassuring to have the option of participating in the choir’s online rehearsals, which Ms Exiner and Mr Teicher started out of necessity during lockdowns and have continued since.
“Sometimes mobility and sometimes just my general energy in being there physically, it’s not always an option,” Ms O’Connell said.
Ms Exiner said they continued the online streaming of the in-person rehearsals so people with illnesses, time restraints or long travel requirements weren’t excluded.
“There were people who wanted to join from interstate and overseas, and we’d never thought of that before, but why not?” she said.
People can sit on chairs during the in-person rehearsals and the space is accessible for people who use wheelchairs.
Ms O’Connell said the choir usually does a meditation at the start of every warm up.
“I think they [Ms Exiner and Mr Teicher] have a really big focus not just on the music but on the wellbeing of everyone that’s there,” she said.