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An Ode to the Loss of Song in Our Lives

November 09, 1998|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the dark, my father sang to us. My brother and I, dozing in the back of the car, the much-skirmished-over division of territory blurred and forgotten. Union anthems and Irish fighting songs, ballads and swing hits spilled over his shoulder onto the back seat, sliding over us like butter on toast. With the stutter-throb of tire on pavement and the rhythmic wash of street light, the songs meant forward movement through the night. The sound of safety, the sound of love.

Now there is a new child, and though my husband is not the singer my father is, he gives it his best. I've caught him at it a couple of times, when he thought no one was listening except the baby. More crooning than singing, but Danny Mac thinks it mighty fine. At 7 months, our son is the perfect audience, attentive and nonjudgmental.

And my husband is not alone. Many friends and family--who I've not heard mutter more than the occasional "Happy Birthday"--serenade the little man with everything from "Twinkle Twinkle" to "I Can't Stand the Rain."

There was a time not so long ago when singing was a common social activity. Gathering 'round the piano was as popular a ritual at a chic cocktail party as it was in middle-American living rooms.

Glee club and choir practices littered the social schedules of Americans of all ages. Song was an integral part of our education. We learned how to read music, and we committed to memory reams and reams of lyrics--folk songs and ballads, popular tunes and classics. So it wasn't surprising that we would trot out our accomplishments at the drop of a treble clef. Making music is a deep-seated communal urge; when we gathered together, it seemed natural to sing.

And there is a reason singing is an integral part of the way humans express themselves. Research done in fields as diverse as gerontology, child development and physics shows that singing can stimulate brain activity, improve memory and aid in learning. Music therapists use song in the treatment of Alzheimer's and cancer patients; educators in helping children overcome learning disabilities. (Consider what it did for all those troubled Von Trapp children, not to mention their neurotic father.)

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But lately, it seems, we have a national case of self-consciousness. And there's more behind it than concern over perfect pitch (although in L.A., where perfection matters more than just about anything, it may be a factor).

Music education in this country has sadly suffered the cruel swipe of the budget cut--many younger people don't know the words to standard songs. Others have drifted away from the churches of our youth, where singing was a variation of prayer. And to have a community sing-along, you must have a community; in these days of urban isolation and transience, that seems a rare thing. Which may explain why most of us confine our solos to the car. Safe, private and a great route to catharsis.

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"It doesn't seem to be a pastime anymore," says Patricia Evans, executive director of the Choiristers Guild. "People don't seem to know the same songs. Of course, a lot of the music that kids, and the previous generation, listen to is not melodic. As corny and hokey as it may seem, Broadway shows used to have great songs. Now the shows may be wonderful, but you don't leave them singing."

The Choiristers Guild tracks children, youth and church choirs--and according to Evans, the numbers have been declining during the last decade.

"Kids know how to make music with computers and synthesizers; they just don't seem to be able to do it with their voices."

"My grandsons don't sing," she adds, "and it breaks my heart."

"Thirty-five, 40 years ago, every school had three or four choral organizations," says Paul Salamunovich, director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. "And the parents are different. Where once they were thrilled to have their kids in a music program, now it's a bother."

But that doesn't explain why those who did benefit from choral education don't sing, at least where people can hear them.

"Singing is, above all, a very emotional thing," says John Henken, music director at Shadow Hills Presbyterian Church, "and people are embarrassed to do it, it would seem. People are reluctant to expose themselves. Which is sad--someone who can't sing when they are very happy or sad is muffled emotionally and spiritually."

And, of course, we can blame TV. With so much entertainment at our fingertips, it is no longer necessary for us to create our own.

"If you don't grow up with parents who sing or play an instrument," Henken says, "you really need a strong desire to do it. And it's not something you can do right away; it's a muscular activity. You have to start slow. It's like running; you don't start with a marathon."

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Not all the news is bad. Web sites for choral groups dot the Internet, and according to James Brooks, president of the American Choral Directors Assn., membership in that organization is up.

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