How joining a group helped me feel a sense of community and changed my life
A lot of good things can happen when you join in. Here’s how harmonizing with strangers in the community helped me when I needed it most.
By Kate Rae
One night seven years ago, I rode my bike through a snowstorm to a real estate office on the opposite end of the city. It was at the urging of my friend Nobu, who had sent an email imploring people in our community to come out and sing a couple of songs together. There were maybe 20 of us gathered in a circle that night, and we sang, self-consciously clutching our lyric sheets at the beginning, confidently harmonizing The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man” by the end. It was such a simple thing, to sing with mostly strangers, and it was enthralling.
Joining the group helped me build a sense of community and make new friends, something that feels awfully intimidating and hard to do as a grownup.
The next day I went to my therapist’s office. “I don’t know how, exactly, but this is going to change my life,” I said.
The week before, she and I had been talking about stagnation, about numbness. I was looking for anything to prick through the deep, hazy grief I’d found myself in post-divorce. Maybe I need to travel somewhere mind-blowing, I suggested, or quit my job and move to a new city? “Just create some small movement somewhere–anywhere–in your life,” my therapist said. “The ripple effect will take hold.”
And so, I went to a real estate office in a snowstorm, and yes, that one small movement did completely change my life. I found a new social network, a new love, a new life. But it was also the start of something huge: Choir! Choir! Choir!, that one-off singing night, became a weekly event, the venue growing to accommodate the burgeoning crowds. Now, seven years later, C!C!C! is a bona fide, internationally renowned sensation.
Joining a choir night is simple. You just pay $5 at the door, get your lyric sheet and decide which group you fit into: low, mids or highs. Then, Nobu Adilman and Daveed Goldman, the C!C!C! leaders, teach everyone the different parts, one group at a time. Finally, they say, “Okay, let’s all try that together,” and the three sections become one — and that’s where the magic happens. For me, in my post-divorce state, that moment of vibrating harmony was always explosive. It felt like the opposite of loneliness. It felt like connection.
Now, Adilman and Goldman regularly take the experience to cities across Canada and the U.S. And when the world loses a much-loved musician, Toronto can count on C!C!C! to mount a fitting memorial, whether it’s singing the songs of Leonard Cohen in a candlelit park or honouring our beloved Gord Downie in a packed singalong in Nathan Phillips Square.
photography by David Pike
What is it that makes joining a singing group so powerful? There’s no shortage of studies that point to the physical and mental benefits of singing together: Singing encourages deep breathing, relieves muscle tension and releases feel-good endorphins and oxytocin (known fittingly as the friendship hormone). Then there’s the first-hand proof. “It’s hard to sing without smiling,” Adilman says. “You open up to a huge variety of emotions, and it makes you feel really good. It also puts you in a prime position to use that energy and make connections with people long after the singing has stopped.”
That’s the other piece of the magic of C!C!C!. Yes, the singing and the breathing and the learning are delightful, but joining the group helped me build a sense of community and make new friends, something that feels awfully intimidating and hard to do as a grown-up. (Researchers at the University of Oxford found singing together has a profound “icebreaker” effect, promoting an almost instant connection among complete strangers). And connection begets connection.
A report by Hill Strategies Research, funded in part by the Canada Council of the Arts, highlights how breaking out of your routine and participating in a cultural activity has both social and psychological benefits. The report also found that joining and creating a sense of connection makes you more likely to give back: charitable donations are more common among people who take part in cultural activities, as is the tendency to volunteer, or even do a favour for a neighbour. The more involved we get, the more we want to contribute to our communities. Case in point: Our C!C!C! group sponsored two refugee families, raising $10,000 toward the cause in one evening by singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” at a packed Lee’s Palace. Last year, the group’s 25 Days of Charity raised more than $50,000 for 25 different organizations chosen by C!C!C! members.
Despite the travelling required to bring the C!C!C! experience to non-Torontonians, most weeks still see Nobu and Daveed up on the stage at Clinton’s Tavern, coaxing a song out of the crowd of hundreds. “Our joke is that we work hard to set the bar lower and lower,” says Adilman. “We don’t have auditions and it’s okay if you come once or all the time. There’s no pressure and you don’t have to have a music degree to participate. All that said, we want to sound good!” Every week, there are the singers who have joined in for years and the newcomers who leave with the same look of delighted discovery I must have had on my face seven years ago on my way home from singing in a snowstorm.