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The Benefits of Singing

Recently I enjoyed watching a young courtship in progress when I was riding the Toronto subway. Over the loudspeaker a voice announced that the train would be stopped for a period at the current station due to troubles ahead on the line. Many passengers got off, but a few of us opted to stay put while the trouble ahead was dealt with. I became aware of the young man and woman who were standing in front of where I sat facing the aisle. Michael and Michelle later gave me their names. I was amused to see how Michael, singing la,la,la, la--no special refrain, just a bubbly tune, would step forward and just miss letting his foot land on Michelle's foot. Michelle would laugh and quickly step aside. The game proceeded with attacks, first on the right foot and then on the left foot. Then Michael escalated his barrage by swinging from the overhead hand rail to land just short of Michelle's space. They both broke into laughter. But Michael was inventive. Next he produced a cell phone from his pocket and played Pearl Jam "Better Man" as he sang along with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers accompaniment. Michelle cocked her head and after smiling and listening for a time, produced her own device and played "Fix You" by Coldplay while Michael listened attentively. It was at this point that they caught my eye, and we introduced ourselves. I asked for the names of their songs and asked if I could quote them in an article I was writing about singing. Michael asked what I intended to write, but before I could answer he piped up to say, "Singing makes you happy." That is my message. Singing makes you happy and it has other significant benefits.

I remember singing when I tucked my young, hyperactive son in for the night to help him relax to go to sleep and singing to my cuddly daughter to make her feel safe and loved as she entered dreamland. I sang every type of song I knew and years later, when my daughter went to Japan to teach English she surprised her new friends, because she could sing "Ame, Ame, (Amefuri)" "Sakura" and a few other Japanese children's songs. When we were locked in the small space of our car on long journeys to visit faraway relatives, we used to sing. To stay awake, the more tired we became the louder we sang, my son, daughter and I as the miles ticked by on our speedometer, and we got nearer and nearer to the welcoming of our friends and relatives.

Don't tell me that you can't sing. I sing even though I change keys in the middle of a song. When I was in the third grade, our music teacher divided my class into two groups. Those who sang well were called the "Nightingales;" those who didn't she labelled the "Parrots." I was put in the Parrot group and for years I refused to sing--no use to embarrass myself or the group I was with, but as I became older, I decided that I was missing something and began to sing for my own pleasure--even off key.

When I lived in China, I had very little ability to communicate in Chinese, and I was invited to have dinner with Chinese friends. There was a dilemma about how to entertain me until the husband hit upon the idea of Karaoke. On the screen appeared a scene with words in Chinese and notes to follow the tune. Many of the songs were familiar to me, and I sang along in English as they sang in Chinese. The father and I even sang "Auld Lang Syne" as a duet. I suppose a hearty meal and a sampling of beer bolstered my confidence, but we joyfully performed for the family and congratulated each other with firm handshakes afterwards.

Dr. Mike Roizen and Dr. Mehmet Oz, the current health gurus in North America, wrote in a Toronto Star article (April 26, 2011, pg. E9) that singing: (1) Lowers your blood pressure, (2) Boosts oxytocin, the cuddle hormone which makes you feel extra close to your child or partner, (3) Makes you breathe easier as demonstrated with people with lung diseases, (4) Brings serenity, blows off steam and stress as it calms down the sympathetic nervous system, (5) Rewires the brain. People who've had a stroke benefit from Melodic Intonation Therapy (singing) which activates the right side of the brain when the left side is not longer functioning. And I will add that people who stutter can usually sing the sentences they can't speak.

Singing has always been an outlet for expressing love for another person or place, and an outlet for the pains of losing someone you love. The black slaves in the U.S. used singing as a way to bolster their hope for a better future, and those Negro Spirituals are sung and enjoyed outside the black circle to this day. We sing our national anthems and patriotic songs to bond us to our countries. Singing is a great way to practice a new language. At this time more than ever, singing is a way to propagate ideas about saving the environment, peace, inequality, and so on. David Suzuki, one of Canada's leading scientists concerned with environmental issues, includes an anthem on his Web Site by David Miles, "I Don't Want to Know." Other examples of songs with messages include: Jon Brooks' song, "Kigali," which is about Roméo Dallaire, war and peace; Michael Franti's song "Hey World (Don't Give Up)" calls attention to poverty, war and injustice; Buffy Ste. Marie is famous for her song, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," about North American Aboriginal claims and the environment.

In these times of uncertainty--with the worries about nuclear disaster, terrorist attacks, wars and the environment can we just sing out for the sake of the joy it brings and reap the other benefits!

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