How do you feel about singing? Is it something you do spontaneously, or only in rare moments, perhaps inspired by a favourite song on the radio or a burst of communal singing in a pub or a car. We may find ourselves bursting into song for no apparent reason – we sing ‘for joy’, just as we also dance ‘with joy’, and ‘jump for joy’ – and if we have any contact with young children we may often experience just how infectious spontaneous expressions of joy can be!
Maybe you know you love to sing, but you don’t get to do it often. I have been teaching voice for 28 years and it is only very recently that I have noticed that the – somewhat elitist – idea of singing as some sort of privilege, properly performed only by the Singer-with-a-capital-S, because they are “special” or “gifted” in some way, is being steadily overtaken by the recognition that singing together in a community is…
a) a great way to spend your spare time
b) very good for your health …and…
c) …that this kind of singing need not demand such a high level of individual skill. This pleases me very much.
It is singing in groups that is generating by far the most positive research about the health benefits of singing, but – as you can read in much more detail in this overview – we are still very much in the early days of scientific research in this area.
I am confident that research into individual singing will reveal health benefits too, and the reason for my confidence is the fascinating work of Stephen Porges, whose research into our vagus nerve – a huge neural structure that connects breathing – to communicating – to listening – to the healthy functioning of our organs and our ability to be resilient in the face of stress. As I am attempting to be brief, do please click here for more info!
So here – in no particular order – are my three reasons…
1. Singing is good for your breathing, and breathing is good for your health - plus singing practice makes breathing exercises much more natural and enjoyable to do!
Thanks to the hugely beneficial anti-stress effects that exhaling slowly and steadily triggers in your nervous system, singing changes your body’s chemical balance for the better. Although the evidence so far is mainly focussed on choral singing, the scientific basis for the benefits of breathing properly is well established. That singing improves breathing, which may seem uncontroversial, has been shown to be true even for those with decreased lung capacity - this report is based on teaching singing to sufferers of Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Singing has been shown to…
Increase endorphin production to stimulate feelings of joy…
Increase oxytocin to stimulate trust and bonding…
…and to lower cortisol – also known as the stress hormone – over time, which makes enormous improvements to health as high cortisol levels disrupt our immune system.
2. Learning stuff is good for your brain – particularly before you know how to do it properly.
Here is an article by Oliver Burkeman, presenting the current evidence in a rather negative light – that the kind of brain-training that seems to actually make you cleverer only works because it is difficult. He is saying that learning something hard = difficult = not fun. However, and from a Feldenkrais perspective, it seems to me that he is misinterpreting the meaning of the data. Children learn an enormous amount in their first 6 years, and they do it while they are just “playing”. Burkeman tell us that when a new task stops being difficult it stops enhancing the brain – well that is because once we demonstrate our interest by performing an activity often enough to actually master it, our neuroplastic brain downloads the new skill as an update in the operating system, and we no longer need to think hard, or try hard, in order to do it – in fact it is now so habitual the new skill has become quite hard to forget, which is the meaning of the phrase “just like riding a bike”. This is obvious with music or language skills – once a guitarist has a new chord down “pat” it becomes part of her repertoire and usually means she is already lining up the next, more challenging, chord she wants to master. So I think the equation should look more like this; learning something challenging is difficult = more complex = more interesting = more fun! Improve your brain function, enjoy the process, and if you want to you can even show off your new skill to your friends. Online brain-training looks pretty dull in comparison.
3. Singing is fun! It is really good fun! Mastering a difficult manoeuvre that improves the performance of a particular song is enormously satisfying – even if no one else ever hears you do it! (And please forgive me all those exclamation marks).
Getting better at singing does not mean that you have to focus your practising on professional vocal skills and attempting to reproduce them (although that is not as difficult as you may think). As with any instrument, you need to get better at ‘playing’ your voice one step at a time.
Getting better at holding notes and stringing notes together improves your breathing - and makes your singing more musical and practised-sounding.
Getting better at hitting the note you hear in your head improves your tuning - and enhances your hearing and your ability to listen well.
Getting better at controlling your volume makes your singing more subtle and nuanced - and is a fundamental part of human communication skills (have you ever heard someone say to a child “use your inside voice”? Perhaps only in American TV shows!). It also helps keep your voice strong and healthy.
Finally, it is interesting – but unsurprising – to note that the benefits to emotional health from singing are greater for amateurs.
“In Study II, the psychological and physiological effects of singing lessons were investigated with respect to amateur and professional levels of singing experiences. Amateur singers experienced more well-being, measured by self-reports of emotional states, and by lower levels of stress hormones, than professionals.”
Unhampered by professional pressures, the test subjects who sang just for fun experienced all the extra benefits we get when we do something just for fun.
Don’t get me wrong - I think singing gets even better when you can do it better, but I also think every human voice deserves to be listened to, and the voices of many other creatures as well. As my own ability to listen has developed, sound has become a source of pleasure to me in a very wide sense, excepting only the sounds of distress – and even a stress-triggering noise such as the sound of a crying baby can be moving, and create a sense of bonding and human connection – one really powerful vocal training technique, that of Roy Hart, was partially inspired by one man’s experience of listening to the sounds of the wounded crying out on the battlefield.
So the evidence is that singing will be of enormous benefit to you, even if you never let anyone else hear you – however it will simply benefit you even more if you do find opportunities to mingle your voice with the voices of others. And if you learn to let your voice be heard – your real voice, saying what you really mean – then that is just another healthy route to discover greater happiness.
Vocal Training Options:
I offer classes, workshops, courses and private tuition.
Feldenkrais Embodied Voice Training combines Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement® with state-of-the-art information on the structure and function of our vocal equipment, now available thanks to the developments of modern science. It is aimed at anyone who wishes to develop a conscious, flexible, strong, healthy voice – whether their interest is singing, speaking well as an actor, or freeing their natural voice as a healing and/or spiritual process – and of course any combination of these goals. There will be no pressure to perform during the workshop, the idea is to understand how your voice works and develop your vocal confidence and awareness so that – with practice – your voice can become fully integrated both physically and emotionally, in other words an effortlessly embodied voice. For this reason it is important that you feel relaxed and able to explore making sounds without any embarrassment or self-consciousness – of course if performing is not a problem for you, then your ease and ability to play with your voice will be particularly valuable for any attendees who are feeling shy about being heard!
Free your breathing from your nostrils to your pelvic floor
Feel how your vocal equipment actually works
Discover how the natural sounds we are all able to produce without effort can lead us naturally into singing or speaking with power and expression
Learn how to keep your voice healthy and strong whether performing, presenting or teaching
Learn how to heal vocal injuries if you do overdo it
Begin the process of freeing yourself from physical and mental limitations, and constraining postural habits, in order to allow your fully embodied voice to soar unfettered
Voice and Singing Classes with Maggy Burrowes
2.00pm – 6.00pm (including refreshment breaks) £45
Drakefell Road, SE14
07976 640737 / 020 7642 1457
More details on the Singing Classes Page on my blog.
Next class will be in September, date TBA…