Back in March, during the beginnings of the pandemic, I was in Bali unsure if or when I would be getting home. My parents, who are nearing 80, were on the farm in Canada, self-isolating. I talked to them daily, particularly my mom who I’m quite close to and could tell isolation was weighing on her. I felt like we needed something more then talking, something special, so I suggested that everyday we sing together. My mom, who would be the first to tell you she is not a singer, agreed and it became one of the sweetest parts of my day.
I looked up old gospel tunes and some of my mom’s favourite Patsy Cline songs and every morning we sang. It didn’t always come naturally. Some days we’d talk and it felt heavy, with one or both of us feeling reluctant to sing. But, we would try anyway and within 5 minutes of crooning “I fall to Pieces” or “Amazing Grace” we both felt better. It changed the energy and gave us a place to focus our attention, sing our emotions, and connect even from opposite sides of the planet.
After the government urgently requested I return home (several times) I made my way back to quarantine in a friend’s condo. It was cold, grey, and I struggled with leaving my dreams of Bali behind. However, my mom and I kept the ritual alive. It wasn’t quite as often but every second day or so we would sing together. And even though I was tired, depressed, and reluctant, it always made me feel better. I think it did the same for my mom.
After quarantine I stayed with my parents where I got to sing with my mom in person. One afternoon, she was feeling unenthusiastic in general. After convincing her to sing we began and the energy shifted. It lead into an afternoon of looking up, listening and singing songs from her childhood.
With singing, so often the hardest part is getting started. But, once we do the medicine begins.
Everyone… yes Everyone can Sing
“I can’t sing”
“I’m tone def”
“You don’t want to hear me sing”
“I can’t carry a tune”
These are the excuses I hear all the time. People tell me a myriad of reasons why they can’t sing. Usually, there’s a story - someone told them they shouldn’t sing when they were younger, they got teased, or their a voice changed and now feels unfamiliar. A LOT of people have these stories, they are probably more prevalent then not. However, I’m here to tell you, these stories aren’t true, that you, yes YOU can sing.
I know one women who was told she couldn’t sing by her brother when she was five years old. So, she didn’t, not in front of anyone. Then at 70 she joined a choir, still nervous about her voice but sang anyway. And you know what? She loved it!
One client I worked with struggled to sing because her voice had changed dramatically. An intense fitness regime and supplements had lowered her voice and made it uncomfortable. When she went to sing her throat tightened and she felt the painful regret of her choices. Though our sessions together, slowly, gently, we shifted the beliefs that stopped her from singing, calmed her nervous system, and by our last session she sang without pain. Her voice was deeper and resonated with the weight and wisdom of her experiences. As someone who had the privilege of hearing her, I can you it was stunning.
When we are young we often hear “good” singers and compare ourselves to them. If we don’t hit the notes right, or forget the words, we recoil and become quiet. But singing is so much more then the sounds we make. It is a place to express our emotions, connect in community, connect to spirit, and as as you will learn it is an accessible way to bring healing to our entire system.
We can re-write the story, shift our language, and gift ourselves permission to sing.
“I can sing”
“I choose to sing”
“I sing because I love it/ I want to/ I’m curious”
“It feels good to sing”
“Singing is my practice”
“I sing for myself”
“I sing as a prayer”
Fact: Singing is Medicine
Maybe you’ve felt the power of singing, the sense of freedom, breath, and possibility. But what you might not know is how widely studied the effects of singing are and how this practice is both preventative and therapeutic medicine.
Lets break it down. Singing:
Deepens breath and increases oxygen intake
Stimulates the vagal nerve and parasympathetic nervous system
Increases nitric oxide which support the cardiovascular and nervous systems
Improves immune system function
Improves memory and brain function
Supports mental health
Singing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system - known as the ‘rest and digest system.’ This system brings all other systems into balance - lowering blood pressure, decreasing heart rate, and stimulates both digestive and endocrine systems. By moving into this system and away from ‘fight and flight’ responses our body has the capacity to heal itself.
When it comes to your brain and mental health, singing is both a preventative and therapeutic exercise. Melodic Intonation therapy, which accentuates the singing aspects of speech is used to to re-develop language skills in brain injury and stroke patients. Call and response singing is used to improve memory, coordination, and cerebral function. Musical memory is often maintained in Alzheimers patients even as other aspects of memory fail. Music and singing have proven emotional and behavioural benefits for these individuals and allows for communication and connection with loved ones. Studies also indicate that musical intervention improves cognition and may even slow the progress of dementia.
A research study in Finland showed that senior citizens those who engaged in regular choir practice, demonstrated greater physical and mental quality of life even after other sociodemographic aspects were accounted for. Another study of seniors found that choir singers reported less loneliness, better morale, fewer falls, less medication use, fewer doctor visits, and higher self-rated physical health (compared with usual activity group). Perhaps singing is the fountain of youth we’ve been looking for?
When you listen to a gospel choir or favourite singer you may notice how quickly you are touched by emotion. Singing offers us a healthy way to express and regulate our emotional state. When words cannot describe what we feel, singing offers us a way to express complex and challenging emotions. When we feel alive or happy, singing is a way to celebrate.
It doesn’t matter how you sound, singing is medicine for anyone who chooses to sing.
Three Simple Ways to Start Singing Today.
We get the benefits of singing almost instantly. Singing a short sound like “ahhhhh” can increase oxygen and releases endorphins after only a few minutes. Within moments of singing we stimulate the sacculus, a little organ in the inner ear, which connects to pleasure centres in the brain, regardless of how we sound.
With all the science to back up the benefits of singing, why not start today?
Sigh into your Voice. Take a deep breath and allow the sound ‘Ahhhh’ to release on the exhale. Take slow deep breaths. Let these exhales turn into singing the sound “ahhhh”. If you want some audio support sing this “ahhhh sound” with a drone - link here.
Pick your favourite feel good song, get in your car and sing! Sing loud and free where no one can hear you.
Join a choir or song circle. What’s great about this is that you get the social benefits of singing as well. If you can’t find one in your community email me and join one of our community online song circles.
Silvia Nakkach, ‘Free your Voice: Awaken to Life through Singing’, older Colorado, Soundstrue, 2012
‘Can music help someone with Alzheimers, Answer from Johanthon Graff-Radford M.D., Mayo Clinic, April 20, 2019
Julene K Johnson, Jukka Louhivuori, and Eero Siljander, ‘Comparison of Well-being of Older Adult Choir Singers and the General Population in Finland: A Case-Control Study, Music Sci. 2017 Jun; 21(2): 178–194. 2016 Apr 20
Shirlene Vianna Moreira, Francis Ricardo dos Reis Justi, Marcos Moreira, Can musical intervention improve memory in Alzheimer’s patients? Evidence from a systematic review, Dementia & Neurpsychologia, 2018 Apr-Jun; 12(2): 133–142
Julene K Johnson, Jukka Louhivuori, Anita L Stewart, Asko Tolvanen, Leslie Ross,Pertti Era, Quality of life (QOL) of older adult community choral singers in Finland, International Psychogeriatrics, 2013 Jul; 25(7): 1055–1064
The Health benefits of singing, Aug 7, 2019
Shahram Heshmat Ph.D, How does music affect the way we think, feel, and behave? Posted Aug 25, 2019 psychology today
The Health Benefits of Singing, Chicago Tribune, March 15, 2018
Cohen, The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on the Physical Health, Mental Health, and Social Functioning of Older Adults, The Gerontologist, Dec 2006