United World Project


Want to unite the world? Start singing!

22 January 2020   |   , ,
By Conleth Burns

Conleth Burns from Northern Ireland, currently part of the United World Project’s Rome office, tells his experience in the “Mariapoli Romana” Community Choir.

I never joined my school choir. I thought I wasn’t good enough and it would have been an unpopular (and thus unwise) thing for a teenage boy in my school to do. I loved listening to my friends sing in the choir and I often regretted not joining in, especially when they would silence the church with heavenly hymns at Easter and Christmas, or cover Mumford & Sons ‘The Cave’ in a new and interesting way.

When I joined my small local church choir a few years later, our choir-master asked me to sing a duet of ‘O Holy Night’ one Christmas Eve.  I really wished that, 7 years earlier, I had made a different choice and joined the school choir, because my croaky rendition was nothing like the annual angelic ‘O Holy Night’ at school. It did, however, give my brothers something to laugh about for a long time after!

4 months ago I arrived in Rome to work for the United World Project. I spoke and understood no Italian, but someone explained that Dori, the director of the “Mariapoli Romana” Community Choir based here, was asking for some young voices from our team to join. My hesitancy to join a choir returned again. I thought the request didn’t apply to me. I couldn’t string a sentence together in Italian, never mind harmonize in a foreign language! Dori, however, persisted and 2 months ago I joined the choir. In doing so, I became one of 37 million Europeans who sing in choirs, according to research by the European Choral Association.

Now I’m truly grateful for Dori’s persistence. At first I couldn’t roll my R’s, I was always mixing up the different vowel sounds, and I’d get stuck mid-sentence like a scratched CD stuck in the middle of a song. My Italian is still far from perfect and sometimes I doubt it ever will be. But the choir has certainly helped. I’m learning grammar with Encar, and learning how to speak, read and write with Carla, but it’s the choir which is giving me the confidence to actually use the language.  The other choir members have all become my language coaches!

Recently I read some interesting research from Oxford University. According to Jacques Launay, Postdoctoral Research in Experimental Psychology, being part of a choir improves our sense of wellbeing, improves breathing, posture and muscle tension and releases the same endorphin (β-endorphin) as an intense gym session. It seems to me that joining a choir is like a one-stop-shop to releasing all your New Year’s resolutions.

Every day at United World Project HQ, we are exploring projects that can unite communities of all shapes and sizes. We work to connect people with one another, connect communities and use this connection to power a united world: our ultimate and audacious aim. Launay’s research concludes that choirs not only help forge social bonds, but also do so “quickly”. He adds that choirs are an effective bonding tool for large groups of people. This rings very true for someone like me, who is working on a daily basis in the United World Project to build and highlight these bonds. Joining a choir, for me has meant building a piece of a more united world.

I consider our Tuesday night choir practices as an Italian lesson, gym session and endorphin-boosting moment combined. But it’s something else too. A world that sings together more will be more united. It means that our job as the United World Project must be to help inspire the world to sing more.

Are you part of a choir too? Please tell us your story, writing to: conleth.burns@unitedworldproject.org.