Sound Mind And Body

Studies show that singing is not only good for your mental health, it's also physically good for you

A sound mind, body from singing

April 27, 2007|By Susan Brink | Susan Brink,Los Angeles Times

It's George's fault that I never sang. Freckle-faced, hair-licked, musical-fingered George. Starting in first grade, I sat behind him in the alto row in music class, and that remained my place for eight years of grammar school. He was Mr. Perfect Pitch, the kid who could play "Flight of the Bumblebee" on the piano. I'd open my mouth to sing, and he'd turn around and snap, "You're flat. You're flat."

"I've been workin' on the railroad," I'd begin.

"You're flat," I'd hear from the seat in front of me.

Pretty early on, I learned to lip-sync.

There are others like me, people who sing in the car - but only alone with the windows up - maybe quietly in church if there are several hundred other voices to hide behind. Never with any volume, mortified at the thought of being heard.

They should all get over it. Belting one out, it turns out, is good for us.

Where to belt, and with whom, can be a problem. Sure, every city has singing teachers, but what about people who aren't as much interested in learning vocal techniques as they are in inclusive, nonjudgmental group singing? The pickings are slim - an occasional workshop, a church choir that doesn't require auditions, a local karaoke bar.

But at Breitenbush Hot Springs in Oregon, I found a spring workshop called "How to Sing in the Shower." Billed as a kind of retreat for amateur singers, as well as a haven for nonsingers who wanted to sing, it filled the bill for eight of us who came together - guided by a teacher who had breathing suggestions, volume tips and lots of encouragement.

It makes intuitive sense that singing is psychologically sound -that it can elevate one's mood or provide an outlet for sadness. But a growing body of science shows that not only is singing mentally healthful, it's also physically good for you.

Singing can improve the body's immune response. In elderly people, it can reduce the use of prescription drugs, doctor visits and emergency room care. The conscious breathing from the diaphragm involved in singing can reduce stress.

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"Stress affects the immune system," says Robert Beck, a professor at the University of California, Irvine who has studied singing's effects. "If you feel good about what you're doing, the immune system recovers and gets a boost."

It was with high hopes and nary a goal of Broadway stardom that I headed to Oregon. If it was too late to sing for my own babies, now out of college and married, it wasn't too late to sing to my children's children.

That's a fairly typical motivator, says Cathleen Wilder, our workshop teacher. "A lot of people, right around their 50th birthday, decide they want to sing," she says. "They tell me they want to sing to their grandchildren."

The seven others possessed a variety of talents and fears. The setting, a fend-for-yourself rustic retreat in the rain forest on the west slope of Mount Jefferson, was enough to call the vocal muse.

Wilder, from Seattle, had the voice of an angel, the training of an opera singer and the will to convince people that singing is their birthright. "I don't care about the research," she said. "I know it makes you feel good. It's about the joy."

Mumbling mantras such as "what have you got to lose" and "how bad could it be," my turn came to sing a note, solo. I laughed nervously, offered an apology for the sound that soon would escape. Wilder hit a key, and I tried to match it. "Close," she said. "Try again." She hit the note again while raising her conducting hand a bit higher. I raised my voice a bit higher. "Good," she said. "You got it."

Two tries, and I got the note right, guided only by the keyboard and her hand. No one declared me flat. Nor did anyone tell fellow student Helen Rueda to shut up, as her friends once did when she sang Christmas carols. We sang corny old songs, like "Buffalo Gals" and classics like "Amazing Grace."

To my ears, we got better with every song. Not everyone had the shy history I did. Four were confident amateur singers, with church choir or other choral singing experience.

But Rueda, who only sings while riding her bike alone in isolated areas, was glad to have a soul mate like me. Neal Lemery plays the piano but said, "I find it really hard to sing with other people." And Sean Harvey plays the guitar but wanted more confidence to sing while he plays.

Many people think they can't match a note. But, like me, they are likely better than they think they are. With all due humility, when I sang alone, I sounded quiet but sweet to my own ears, following Wilder's bouncing hand with my voice. And when I sang with others, I had their voices to follow as well.

It's true, perfect pitch is a rare gift. Scientists now call it absolute pitch, and those who have it might be heard to casually say "E flat" when they hear a horn blare.

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