It is a dreary, rainy autumn evening and the streets in the centre of Berlin are largely bare. There is, however, a group of psychologists and psychiatrists who don’t seem to be bothered by the weather. They are in high spirits as they repeatedly sing passages from Joe Dassin’s 60s hit “Aux Champs Elysées”. It’s Monday night and they are rehearsing for their very special choir: the “Singing Shrinks”.
“We are the only choir in the world made up of psychiatrists, psychologists and neurologists,” says founder Mazda Adli, during a rehearsal at the old lecture hall ruins at the Berlin Museum of Medical History. Really? “At least nobody has ever contradicted me,” says the 49-year-old psychiatrist. Although there are numerous medical ensembles – such as the World Doctors Orchestra – a chorus of people who “treat the brain’ is unique.
The group has been singing together for 18 years and are led by three professionals. They perform at jubilee celebrations and also at conferences with a repertoire ranging from songs from the Weimar Republic to contemporary music by bands such as Coldplay. The group mostly performs in the Berlin-Brandenburg area. After all, “when we travel, senior physicians are missing in many of Berlin’s hospitals,” says Adli.
Mazda Adli, one of the choirs founding members. Photo: DPA
The amateur singers are not at all interested in doing big tours. In fact, most of them are singing because it helps them to cope with stress. They are all dealing with people in exceptional circumstances, from patients suffering from schizophrenia, depression or anxiety disorders, to those who are in serious psychological crisis. Additionally, they are carrying out research and administrative tasks and taking part in discussions with relatives, officials, police and colleagues.
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“In my profession, I have to help people deal with a lot of mental struggles, so it is important to know how to recover effectively,” says stress researcher Adli. “Singing is healthy for both the body and the soul. It relaxes the muscles, rebalances stress hormones and activates positive emotions.” At times he finds himself stressed and overburdened, but he says “as soon as I sing in the choir, I forget about everything.”
Researchers have discovered that when singing in unison oxytocin, the so-called ‘cuddle hormone’ as well as the typical happiness hormones, endorphins, are released. In addition, immunoglobulin is formed when singing, which means that singing can strengthen the immune system.
Sven Ratzel (the conductor), Oliver Uden (singing teacher) and Daniel Markovski (the pianist) in discussion during the choir's rehearsal. Photo: DPA
For Tom Bschor, one of the leading German depression researchers, singing in the choir prevents him from burning out. “You find what you need to centre yourself if an appointment goes badly,” says the head physician of the psychiatric department at the Schlosspark-Klinik in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district. The choir is also a great community, “We are friends and also share our professional lives,” says Bschor, who has been a part of the choir from the very beginning.
The musicologist and author, Gunter Kreutz, agrees with the members of the choir. “Singing is psychologically very positive. There are endless reports that singers feel refreshed, strengthened and relaxed after a choir rehearsal,” says the professor from the University of Oldenburg. Studies have also shown that singing in a choir is a kind of meditative experience. “You become more aware of yourself and gain a greater ability to deal with yourself and your surrounding environment,” says Kreutz.
According to the German Choral Association there aren’t exact numbers on how many people sing in choirs, but there are about 60,000 registered choirs in Germany, but this doesn’t include company choirs, school choirs or independent choirs, says spokeswoman Nicole Eisinger. “From our understanding it seems that independent choirs are becoming more and more popular,” says Eisinger, and “big sing-along stadium events are booming”.
Sven Ratzel conducts the choir during rehearsal. Photo: DPA
The Berlin choirmaster Sven Ratzel looks after six ensembles, including the ‘Singing Shrinks’. “Every choir is special, and when a group has a strong identity that can work really well,” he says, referring to the collective professional background of the ‘Singing Shrinks’.
The choir began when they grouped together as colleagues to sing when their clinic director retired, but that was 18 years ago. “It was so much fun that we continued,” says Adli.
They didn’t choose their rehearsal schedule at random either, “we don’t have Sunday blues anymore, because on Mondays we rehearse.”