Of Thee I Sing, Baby!
BY LENORE SKENAZY | The shower is where America does it — in private, with no one judging, just because it feels good.
I’m talking about singing, of course, that once-universal pastime that uplifts the soul, re-boots the body, and doesn’t demand a monthly fee. So why aren’t we singing all the time?
In “La La Land,” the hit movie that may sweep the Oscars, everyone on screen bursts into song. Yes, that’s what a musical is: an embarrassing admission that we’re all a-tingle with music, just waiting for the chance to explode. But aside from Disney, most moviemakers have not been pumping out song-and-dance movies for, oh, about half a century. There’s a reason more Americans knew Carrie Fisher than her mom, Debbie Reynolds, star of “Singin’ in the Rain.” Musicals were once the most American of movies. Now action movies are. But with the success of “La La Land,” that may be about to change — and maybe we’ll change, too.
Singing is so basic to human happiness, some scientists believe it might have evolved even before language. It was the way stories were passed down before writing, because it is a lot easier to remember a song than a paragraph. And that’s why kids still sing their ABC’s — our brains are built to embed music.
What’s more, when actual language eludes us — for instance, after a stroke — sometimes music doesn’t, since it is processed in another area of the brain. After my mom had lost almost all her memory, I could sing a few songs from her childhood and she could, out of the fog, join in.
The power of music is mysterious. One study of cancer patients found that an hour of singing boosted their immune proteins. It also lowers blood pressure. Even people with lung disease feel better when singing.
And of course, it is bonding. Sing with a group and you are one — a fact understood by anyone who has ever been in a choir, or the military, or the bus to summer camp.
But Americans (heck, humans) have been singing less and less ever since technology started to do it for us. While in the pre-Edison era most middle class families had a piano around which to sing, the record player and radio made it easy to hear music anytime. The smart phone made it even easier.
And since the people singing on tape, television, and iTunes (but not necessarily YouTube) sing better than the rest of us, we started to believe that this is a task, like neurosurgery, best left to the professionals. So, barring the occasional “Jingle Bells,” or “Happy Birthday,” most of us sing only to ourselves if we sing at all. This is a loss of such gargantuan proportions, it is as if we stopped walking or dancing. Which, come to think of it, we sort of have. Even the clergy report that congregants are singing less.
What would it take for us to bring singing back into our everyday lives?
- Make singing a regular part of school: By the time kids are in eighth grade, only a third have a music class. What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be much agreement on which songs to teach. So even though my kids went to public school, K–12, they don’t know “My Country ’Tis of Thee” or even “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” You can argue that we have a wider world now, but sharing at least a few songs is an easy way for people to connect.
- Stop trying to sing like Mariah: Nowadays when we sing, we think we have to sound like the professionals. (See: Karoake.) But that’s like saying that anyone who wants to play basketball shouldn’t bother unless he has the word “Jordan” in his name. Singing is actually a skill that almost everyone gets better at the more they do it. (Not great at. Just better.)
- Establish your own glee club: Around the country, people are starting informal groups where people get together and sing. This sounds so fun that I’m thinking of starting one myself — provided everyone sings better than I do.
- Join the party: In the meantime, find a place — church, synagogue, mosque, community center — where people are already singing and join in. In turn, whoever’s in charge should remember to promote the kind of songs the average person likes to sing — not too complex, not too soprano. There’s a reason folk songs lasted through the centuries. They’re written for the folks, not opera stars.
- Start singing!: Do it while waiting for the bus. And if I happen to be standing next to you, I just may join in.