In this blog, as the ‘Sing and Shine’ programme draws to a close, we talk to Mary Amond O’Brien about the positive impact that this project has had on the young people participating.
Q Mary you’re nearing the end of ‘Sing and Shine’ now, what has surprised you the most about your experience on this particular project?
Being Aspiro’s first outreach project with secondary school students I was surprised at how the young people taking part embraced all elements of the project right from the start – albeit that the singing element took longer in some schools than others. Witth a week to go to the performance, each school group is coming into their own nicely, just like a sportsperson peaking at the right time! Every school group has risen to the musical and personal challenges given to them (with some even going as far as surprising themselves by singing in two and three-part harmony!) and all of this without realising they are a ‘choir’ which I have to admit is a nice surprise not only for me but for their music teachers too!
Q When you walked through the doors of the participating secondary schools for the first time, what were you thinking?
I was quite nervous really, especially visiting the schools that had less (or no) experience of ‘group singing’ / choir. While I was quietly confident in the project and its overall aim, I worried about what the young people would think of it, would they be open to a project that involved ‘singing’, especially in the mixed schools as it is always a challenge to get the boys to buy into the whole ‘singing’ thing when they have not grown up with it.
Q Were the students engaged from the beginning or was there a process of winning them over?
It varied from school to school. With regard to the singing element of the project, as expected, there was good engagement from the start with the schools that already had a school choir. It did, however, take a little longer to achieve this in the schools where the majority of students taking part had no ‘group singing’ experience. (In mixed school teenage groups, the boys’ voices can be a challenge for them as they are still changing and as a result this can make them become quite self-conscious of their speaking voice and here was I asking them to sing too!) It was great for me to observe the facilitation sessions with Rita and Derry* and see how they all embraced these sessions openly from the start. I believe these additional elements to the project added greatly to getting the students to engage more deeply in the project and most important understanding the concept of the project.
Q This was a project with a very clear outcome; in what way have the participating students influenced the process?
The students were given the opportunity to choose their group solo piece and then discuss the text of this song with Rita O’ Quigley our professional mental health facilitator – Rita got them to explore how the text of their chosen song might impact on their lives today and what it meant to them personally and as a group. They also got to influence the creations of the visual interpretations of their songs by illustrator Derry Dillon who facilitated a session with them about their chosen song using a similar approach to Rita. The guidelines they were given were to pick a song with a positive message and appropriate lyrics, that in some way related to the overall aim of the project, while at the same time meant something to them personally or resonated with them in some way in their lives today both as individuals and as a group.
Q What in your opinion are the most important benefits that young people can receive from groupsinging?
There are many important benefits, however for me the most basic ones are often the most important – forming new friendships that for many last a lifetime, working as a team, developing a love for a life-long activity, being among like-minded people which fosters personal, social and emotional development. The bonus benefits of feeling energized through the release of ‘feel good’ endorphins, promoting healthy breathing, reducing stress and developing creativity easily follow on as a result of being in this learning environment.
Q Is there any research exploring the impact of singing upon the positive mental health of young people?
Unfortunately we don’t have any of our own research here in Ireland however there is plenty of on-going research happening in other countries but it is not specific to young people. The one closest to home is in the Syndey De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health in Kent, who continue to build the case for ‘Singing on Prescription’.
Q What do you hope the young people will gain from participation in this project?
For those who have been lucky enough to have been singing before this project I hope that ‘Sing and Shine’ will have helped to create a deeper awareness and understanding of the many health benefits of group singing. For those new to the activity of group singing / choir, my hope is that they have in some small way benefited from participating in this project and maybe even consider continuing to sing in their school or community. Beyond the singing the most I can hope for is that everyone will realise that given the right learning environment we are indeed ‘better together’ and that together we can overcome anything.
Mary Amond O'Brien
MARY AMOND O’BRIEN
Mary Amond O’Brien began her career in choral music education in 1997, with the formation of Aspiro who have an outstanding track record, both nationally and internationally. Aspiro offers a musical education of the highest artistic standards through the medium of choral music for interested young people in Carlow and surrounding counties.
Believing in the innate musical potential of all young people and within a policy of equity and inclusiveness, no auditions are held for membership which makes this successful young choir unique. Focusing mainly on performance Aspiro has also won many awards at Ireland’s major Choral Festivals. Aspiro’s performances have been acclaimed by the Irish Times and Irish Examiner as ‘remarkable’ and Mary’s conducting as ‘vigorous and dynamic’.
Mary was appointed choral director of RTÉ Cór na nÓg in 2011. Mary has studied with world renowned choral specialists Dr. Doreen Rao and James Jordan [US] and has received many Arts Council Awards in support of her continuing professional development and is in much demand as a guest director and workshop facilitator.