Sing for your life (or at least your mental health)!
Updated: Oct 10
As a very young child in nursery school I chose solitary activities rather than interactive ones. For years, I thought that I just went through a shy period, but now I believe it was related to the fact that I was born two months early. When I studied Human Development as part of my pre-requisites for the NYU master’s degree in music therapy program, I did some research on premature infants born around the same time I was and have come to the conclusion that I wasn’t shy, I was socially avoidant. This behavior was influenced by an extended period of isolation that I experienced in an incubator.
Finding your music, finding yourself
That all changed when my mother put Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall on the turntable. I was six. So taken with that album was I that not only did I listen to it continuously, but I also sang the songs all the time. Imitating every nuance and inflection I sang these songs at home, on the swings in the backyard, for neighbors, for my first grade class, for anyone who would listen. From that point on, I became quite social, made many friends and decided I would be a singer when I grew up, which meant I would just continue to do what I had been doing. This was the first critical point in which music helped to heal something in me: transforming a tendency to withdraw from the world into discovering my personality through my voice. I found my voice and in doing so I found myself.
What a profound impact singing had on my life! Harry’s singing, my own singing, even in utero: my mother’s singing. My mother was an opera singer and sang while she was pregnant with me so I heard her singing in utero. Newborns come into the world being able to recognize the mother’s voice, and then the bonding process is created in part through the vocalisms they make together. I got a lot of voice time from mom, until I had to be swept into an incubator for five weeks. Forget about music therapy in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit)! At that time, the babies were completely isolated with only the nurse to take care of them. Parents were only allowed to look at their babies outside of the incubator, so Mommy and I had no contact. (I remember in music therapy school, being completely envious of not having music therapy treatment as a premie when I learned that now it is a thing that helps a lot with various issues encountered by premies). I wonder what it was like to have been reunited with her, to hear her voice again, as well as her singing voice. It had to have been completely profound irregardless of the musical impact it might have had on me later. Obviously my mother (and father, not to leave him out!) must have been thrilled to bring me home after five weeks in the hospital! But the impact on me? Babies know, not only from knowing their mother’s voice but from other sensory experience, when they are separated from their mothers. That’s deeply traumatic. I got my mother back and I knew it. To hear her voice again, aside from having her hold me, must have deeply affected me on a cellular level.
I can trace a line from the beginning of my life to how this experience might have influenced choices throughout my life: to continue to sing, to become a music therapist, and to become certified in vocal psychotherapy (in process at the time of this writing.) As a board certified music therapist, I know there are health benefits, including mental health, of singing outside of my own personal experience. Now it’s mainstream news!
Singing is good for your mental health. Singing with others may even be better.
On June 25, 2020 the Washington Post published an article entitled “Singing is good for you. Singing with others may even be better.” Well, I’m glad I wasn’t told that when I was six or I may have stopped since, It’s good for you!, sounds like something that you do not want to do, like eat your vegetables! Our culture right now is pretty health-obsessed though, so I’m hoping that sharing the news that singing is good for you might make you take note and try it!
The WaPo piece articulates the benefits of singing with others. There is the social aspect of it, and the article notes the experience of having a choir family. We as a society are quite fragmented, and plenty studies abound about folks living in isolation having shorter lifespans. So, there is the health giving aspect of the community that being in the choir entails and the bonding that singing in a choir creates. And we all have to work together to do it. Singing alone does not a choir create, and the different sections that a choir has (traditionally soprano, alto, tenor and bass) means that you rely on each other to create the intended effect. It’s enormously satisfying. No wonder it’s healthy! In fact, some singers, professional and amateur alike might say, “Duh! That’s so obvious.” Now there is scientific proof. Saliva samples taken from some of the singers showed a reduction of stress hormones and increased cytokines, proteins that can increase the body’s ability to fight serious illness. The article notes that other studies have shown a connection between singing and decreased anxiety, stimulated memory in dementia patients, increased lung capacity and reduced symptoms of postpartum depression. I am not surprised by these findings as there are other studies that have reported them. However, in this study I found the sample size here to be significant, whereas in previous studies, sample sizes were much smaller.
Why choirs or group singing?
You might ask, can’t playing in a band or orchestra have this effect as well? Probably. A dear friend of mine who is a professional flutist told me that that in his opinion, playing with an orchestra is the greatest example of people working together to create something beautiful. In this day and age, that’s saying quite a lot. A friend who plays clarinet in a community band recently texted me after a rehearsal saying, “people can be assholes sometimes, but tonight wasn’t too bad.” Well, it sounds to me like in the end people tend to come together to work it out in the service of the music. It’s gotta be one of the most successful social experiment out there, making music together. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was evidence to bear this out. But for now, let’s stick with the Washington Post article’s focus: group singing.
Singing in choir helps build community, create meaningful relationships, and also offers a sense of accomplishment which promotes self-esteem. All of these things are good for one's mental health. It noted that that text can also be inspiring and may play a role in what what makes the totality of the experience beautiful. That’s an added (e.g., a piece of music with words that is meant to be sung. Obvious? Not in the age of music streaming, where all music is referred to as “songs.” But the distinction is important). If the lyrics are meaningful to the singer, that promotes well-being. There were many examples of this in the article. The choir was comprised of people affected by cancer in one way or another. However, members didn’t discuss anything relating to cancer, they just sung together. At times the lyrics provided the means for celebration, at other times, solace and also determination and the will to survive.
There was another study that is too scienc-y to get into here, but in short the subjects of the study reported feelings of transcendence. One participant is quoted as saying ‘singing together has enabled us to meet each other as human beings differently.’ In this day and age, that is worth paying attention to.
You can sing. Yes, you. Go for it.
WaPo also reported that in 2019 Chorus America reported that some 54 million Americans sang in choirs. My sense is that that is supposed to be a lot of people and maybe it is; the article certainly tried to convey that idea by reporting on it. I wonder if the numbers would have been higher fifty years ago. Through the commodification of music over the past several decades there is this idea that you have to be good to sing. I personally think that is a shame, especially since babies and young children naturally sing. But as we get older, what was once natural to us, tends to go away because of certain messages we get, either overtly or covertly (e.g., being told you can’t sing by a family member, or worse, a teacher - happens all the time! Or, boys don’t sing. And, if you do sing, you gotta do something with it, like… make it, whatever that means. Like, become famous. Oy!)
Think you can’t sing? I was happy to see the article address this stumbling block. An expert is quoted saying what we music therapists know: if you can breathe and make sound, you can sing and therefore receive its benefits.