Why sing? As it happens, there are dozens of good reasons.
“There are actual health benefits to singing,” said Cantor Ronit Wolff Hanan, the music director of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck.
Quoting published scientific studies — she is happy to provide the citations, upon request — Cantor Hanan noted that in addition to improving your respiratory health, singing has been found to reduce stress and boost the immune system. “Older people in one study had reduced levels of cortisol in their saliva after singing,” she said. (Cortisol is commonly called the stress hormone.) Indeed, she said, studies compare choral singing to yoga in terms of emotional and physical health benefits.
In addition to enhancing mood and reducing tension, “singing helps improve breathing in people with asthma or COPD,” she added. “It also helps with cognition in people with dementia.” In some senior centers, she said, iPods are customized with music reflecting the tastes of the individual client. “They suddenly come alive when they hear music linked to something in their memory.”
And then there’s choral music — singing in a group. Here, Cantor Hanan said, the benefits are multiplied.
“People in choirs report improvements in social confidence,” she said, recalling a recent conversation with a mother who said that her son, who once had been uncomfortable in social situations, “became a totally different person when he met up with peers from HaZamir: the International Jewish Teen Choir. It’s a community in which he was totally accepted. It changed his life.
“It’s fascinating,” she added. “There was a study in Sweden of the heart rates of high school choral members when they sang in unison. It’s astonishing. Not only did their heart rates slow down, but they gradually synchronized with one another.”
In addition to deriving all of those benefits, choir members derive “the educational and musical benefits of learning to sing with a group. They’re taught the value of teamwork through music, blending to sound like one voice. It’s like any sports team. Members have various strengths and weaknesses, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They’re learning how to work as a group, to support one another.”
Beth Sholom has taken these findings to heart, offering local singers — especially young ones — a variety of choral groups in which to participate. These include Tzipporei Shalom, for children in first to sixth grades, HaZa-Prep for seventh and eighth graders, and HaZamir for ninth to 12th graders. While most members of the youngest group belong to the synagogue, “members of the other groups have the added benefits of being in an international movement, with members from all walks of Jewish life,” Cantor Hanan said. “This includes students from Orthodox day schools as well as those for whom membership in the choral groups is their only Jewish activity.
“Music is the common language,” she continued. “There’s no political or religious separation, or even separation by sexual orientation or gender identity. You are not labeled except for voice part: soprano, alto, tenor, or bass. It’s all about the music and the incredible bonding qualities of music itself.”
HaZa-Prep, created only last year, is the newest program of the Zamir Choral Foundation that meets at the synagogue. Described by its conductor, Carey White of Englewood, as a first-of-its-kind Jewish preparatory choral program, the group is a musical link between the elementary and high school years. “Singers are given a solid foundation in rehearsal technique and choral singing skills while being exposed to high level Jewish choral music, all through an age-appropriate, hands-on curriculum developed specifically for them,” according to the shul’s publicity material.
Ms. White comes from a family that not only has produced singers, vaudevillians, and other musicians but also had its own music school in Newark. “My parents sang, my aunt was an opera singer, my grandmother came from vaudeville musicians, my mom and my aunt sang duets like the Barry sisters, and everybody sang harmony,” she said.
Ms. White and her husband, Jonathan Miller, are the parents of four children, who range from 2 to 10 years old.
In addition to taking on HaZa-Prep, Ms. White is the director of the middle school music program at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford. She also is a faculty member and orchestral conductor at the EMS Summer String Festival, is the artistic director of violin ensembles and on the violin faculty at the Thurnauer School of Music at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, and has been a choral conductor, violin teacher, and music educator at the Elisabeth Morrow School in Englewood.
Although she trained as a classical violinist, “I straddled both voice and violin,” she said. “I sang in choral groups for most of my life,” including stints with a professional children’s chorus, her high school glee club, and choral groups at the Manhattan School of Music, which she attended as a student. She later went to Barnard College.
When you sing as a part of something, as opposed to singing at home or in the car, “you’re part of a bigger picture,” Ms. White said. “The sound you create is powerful. It’s like a kaleidoscope of sound, changing, moving, and beautiful.” It also makes the singer feel safe. “When you sing alone, it feels more vulnerable. But singing in a group brings confidence, beauty, and a connection to the group.” In addition, it helps children build connections to others and make friends through shared activities.
In HaZa-Prep, Ms. White said, students will “learn about the fundamentals of making music together and how to take notes on a page and bring them to life in an epic way. They’ll also learn how to listen and collaborate.” The music they learn will come from Jewish composers, both liturgical and secular. As with HaZamir, the Teaneck chapter of HaZa-Prep will sing the same repertoire as groups all over the country. That means, she said, “that they can meet up with HaZa-Prep groups in California and sing the same songs.” As a national phenomenon, “It’s different from other choral groups.” Working closely with HaZamir, the younger group “will also have an opportunity to see the larger HaZamir world,” potentially joining them in certain songs and experiences.
According to Cantor Hanan, HaZa- Prep began last year as a small pilot program, with five chapters. “This year we’re upping the game in terms of harder material,” and like their peers in HaZamir, participants will have an opportunity to participate in a retreat and perform with other young singers “from up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
“Last year we ended the retreat by having the group perform at the Five Star Premier Residences of Teaneck,” a local retirement community, Cantor Hanan said. “We culminated with a chesed project, being with seniors and performing for them. I don’t know where that will be this year.”
Tzipporei Shalom meets on Shabbat mornings at 10 a.m. There are no auditions and synagogue membership is not required. HaZamir and HaZa-Prep meet on Sundays at 1 p.m., beginning on September 16, and are open to any singers from the area who meet the minimum eligibility requirements. No preparation is required for the auditions, which are held on opening day. HaZamir and HaZa-Prep are projects of the Zamir Choral Foundation, which was founded and directed by Matthew Lazar. There is more information on the foundation and the groups at www.hazamir.org.
All three choirs meet at Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave. in Teaneck; learn more at www.cbsteaneck.org. For more information on these initiatives, email Cantor Wolff Hanan at firstname.lastname@example.org.