Synopsis: Research shows that singing in a group has health benefits, as well as simply making people feel good. Experts and participants discuss this increasing singing trend in society, and how singing is being used to treat one serious disease.
Host: Nancy Benson. Guests: Stacy Horn, author, Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing With Others; Dr. Barbara Reuer, CEO and Founder, Musicworx, Incorporated music therapy practice, San Diego; Karen Hesley, speech pathologist and director, Tremble Clefs singing group
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The Joy of Singing
NANCY BENSON: Singing in the shower. Everybody does it. You figure no one’s listening so you belt it out. But there’s a movement in America to get people singing in public. We’re not talking about American Idol, but singing with others in a group. Not only is sharing in song a great way to have fun and socialize, scientific research confirms that singing in a choir has therapeutic benefits as well. Stacy Horn is living proof.
STACY HORN: Actually, what happened was I was in my twenties, and I was going through a particularly difficult time in my life. I was just trying to come up with a way to be happy again, but most of the things in my life I really had no control over at the time. Like most people, I couldn’t control falling in love or my job, so I was just looking for something. I remembered singing in my boyfriend’s choir once in high school for the Christmas holidays, and we sang Christmas carols, and it was so much fun. So, I thought “I’ll join a choir!” I went around looking for a choir that was close by, and I walked into Grace Church. It was just this beautiful place, so I auditioned for that choir.
BENSON: Horn walked into Grace Church thirty years ago, and has been singing with the choir ever since. But it almost didn’t happen at all.
HORN: I got in by begging to get in, because I really don’t have a great voice. I can sing in tune, but that’s about all I can say about my voice. I just looked at the guy and said, “Please, please let me in! I’ll sing quietly and I won’t throw anyone else off.” He just laughed. He listened to me and he was very honest about my voice. He said, “You’re right, you don’t have a beautiful voice. But you can sing in tune, so welcome to the choir.”
BENSON: Horn’s experience has led her to write a book, titled Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others. She says there’s a lot of scientific research backing up what choir members say – that singing in a group makes you feel good.
HORN: One of the things I discovered fairly quickly was music feels great, but it isn’t just an emotional response. It’s a physical response too. Every singer you talk to will say the same thing. It’s just–you walk into rehearsal tired, depressed, whatever; you walk out feeling high and wonderful again. So, I looked at the science of singing to see if there was any research to explain this feeling. I actually found a lot. The brain seems to put out this wonderful wash of neurochemicals that make you feel better. I found that it lowers our levels of cortisol, which indicates that it lowers our stress and relaxes us. It releases endorphins, which gives that rush, or “singer’s high.”
BENSON: Studies show that singing also releases the hormone oxytocin, which manages anxiety and stress, and also enhances feelings of trust and bonding.
HORN: So not only is it calming you down and making you feel good, it’s also making you feel close to the singers around you. Everyone who sings will say the same thing. You feel this incredible connection to the people around you. There are very few other areas of life where you feel that connected to other people. You feel that way with your family, but this way you’re feeling it with a room full of people. In my case, that’s over a hundred people.
BARBARA REUER: There’s just something very powerful about the group effect anytime people get together and sing.
BENSON: That’s Dr. Barbara Reuer, CEO and founder of Musicworx Incorporated, a music therapy practice in San Diego. She uses group singing with her cardiac and pulmonary patients.
REUER: It really requires those patients to do a lot of breathing. Most of us don’t do diaphragmatic breathing properly. Most of us breathe from our chest and we don’t go deep into our stomach.
BENSON: The diaphragm is a thin layer of muscle between the lungs and the abdominal cavity. When the diaphragm contracts, it pulls air deep into the lungs, but Reuer says it takes training to breathe this way.
REUER: You have to practice with deep breathing exercises. Like voice majors, most music therapists have vocal training. Even when I was doing that, I had a really hard time initially understanding the concept of the diaphragm. My teacher always had me lay down on my back because you’re like a little baby. You see a baby breathing on their back; you see their tummies going up and down because they’re breathing properly. They’re breathing from their diaphragms and their stomachs. So with patients, you have to get them to connect with their whole stomach area.
BENSON: Experts say singing is especially beneficial for Parkinson’s disease patients whose typical voice symptoms include low volume and slurred articulation.
KAREN HESLEY: Parkinson’s disease affects the vocal muscles just like other muscles in the body. Sometimes they become very rigid or they are tremulous. The vocal chords just need to get that push because automatic movements are depressed in Parkinson’s disease, so you need to cognitively think about what your muscles are doing. Singing really encourages people to do that.
BENSON: That’s Karen Hesley, retired speech pathologist and director of the “Tremble Clefs” in San Diego. You heard it right, the Tremble Clefs.
HESLEY: That is a very important aspect of what we do. We do like to poke fun at the illness. That name was brought to us by one of the original members in the Phoenix, Arizona Tremble Clefs. His name was Ned Brooks. He had Parkinson’s Disease, and he just loved living through humor and making everybody feel better through humor. I think that is something we all really appreciate, the ability and the atmosphere that is created when we can laugh at Parkinson’s. There have been some really funny songs that members have written. They call each other “parkies”. There is a lot of humor involved and I think it really helps ease the burden of living with Parkinson’s.
BENSON: Hesley says there’s no evidence-based research to prove that singing slows down the progression of Parkinson’s, but she says anecdotal reports point in that direction.
HESLEY: It’s an illness specific group. Everybody in the group experiences similar things. Having said that, every case of Parkinson’s disease is different. Everyone responds to medication differently. Every caregiver has different issues, different concerns, and different things that they are dealing with on a daily basis. However, it gives people something to really come together and appreciate everyone understanding what their issues are. But at the same time, the focus is not on the Parkinson’s disease. The focus is on the music.
BENSON: And because the Tremble Clefs perform at community centers, senior homes and a variety of other venues, choir members have a vested interest in sounding good. Hesley says when members practice their individual parts; they’re also working on proper breathing and muscle control on a daily basis. But she says there’s another benefit — perhaps the most important one.
HESLEY: It shares it with other people. That’s a huge aspect of the program: that we have something to give to others. We can take our music out and we can be the givers of goodwill and joy. It does make people happy and it makes people smile. It puts a very positive viewpoint on Parkinson’s disease and what people with Parkinson’s can do, not what we can’t do. It’s not the handicap. We’re showing the capabilities rather than the disabilities. So it’s a win-win situation.
HORN: It’s so easy! There are choirs everywhere. So, you really don’t have to be a great singer. Just find a local choir or community choir. I wrote this book because I know about this great thing that will make your life better both emotionally and physically, as I said. It’s also very affordable and it’s very accessible. You basically just find a choir and show up for rehearsals. You will get all these incredible benefits for an output that you love to do.
BENSON: You can find Stacy Horn’s book, Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others, wherever books are sold. You can learn more about community choirs and where to find them by visiting our web site at radiohealthjournal.net. Our writer/producer this week is Polly Hansen. Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Nancy Benson.