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Sing Out, Sister

A simple tune can boost mood, memory and the immune system -- and ease stress.

April 23, 2007|Susan Brink | Times Staff Writer

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 at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, a church choir that doesn't require auditions, a local karaoke bar.

In the catalog of one of my favorite spots, Breitenbush Hot Springs in Oregon, I found a spring workshop, "How to Sing in the Shower." Billed as a kind of retreat for amateur singers, as well as a haven for non-singers who wanted to sing, it filled the bill not just for me but for a somewhat tentative group of seven other people who came together to do nothing but sing. We were guided by a teacher who had breathing suggestions, volume tips and lots of encouragement.

It makes intuitive sense that singing is psychologically good, 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. It 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 itself reduce stress.

"Stress affects the immune system," says Robert Beck, a UC Irvine professor 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, a role with the Met or a Grammy award, that I headed up to Oregon. It's too late to sing for my own babies, now that they're out of college and married. But it's not too late to sing to my children's children.

That's a fairly a 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 Mt. Jefferson, was enough to call the vocal muse.

Our classroom, named the Forest Shelter, was a hand-hewn yurt whose skylight opened up to towering Douglas firs and whose rear windows looked down a wooded hill to the white water of the Breitenbush River. Tucked in the woods off the beaten path between guest cabins and the lodge that housed the dining room, the eight of us had plenty of privacy.

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 a 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 any one tell fellow student Helen Rueda, as her friends once did when she sang Christmas carols, to shut up. We sang corny old songs, like "Buffalo Gals, won't you come out tonight, come out tonight, come out tonight...." and classics we all knew, like "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me...."

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