The Surprising Power of Singing
I’ve been thinking a lot about singing lately. I had two very powerful experiences with singing recently that I’m still processing.
Let me be clear, I’m not a singer – well, except for singing around the house, and that is mainly singing silly songs to my cats, and possibly annoying the rest of my family!!
As a teenager and a young woman, however, I did quite a lot of choral singing. I got the opportunity to revisit this in a unique way when I participated in the wedding of one of my dearest and oldest friends during my trip back to Sheffield, in England, this June.
One of the many special and lovely things that happened in this wedding, was that some of us formed a chorus to sing Seasons of Love* together at the end of the ceremony. Any of the guests who wished to sing were invited to do so, and about 20 of us spent the months preceding the wedding learning and practicing the song – for the most part on our own.
Although we had a short rehearsal the night before the wedding, only about half the singers were able to attend, and none of us who were actually participating in the wedding in other ways could attend the rehearsal on the day, so the first time we all sang together was in the wedding itself.
It was an amazing experience. It wasn’t perfect (what is?!), of course, but really pretty good – and so full of joy. There’s an astonishing power in singing together that’s tremendously uplifting.
During my time in Sheffield I also visited my mum in the care home several times. Using the Alexander Technique is so helpful to me when I see her, as I find the whole thing quite challenging. Using simple stress-relief practices before, during and after my visits helps calm my nerves and anxiety around the situation.
The progression of her Alzheimer’s means I can no longer hold any sort of meaningful conversation with her. In fact, asking her questions or telling her about things that are not right in front of her either confuses her or she disengages because she can’t understand. I’ve been at a loss to know how to interact with her.
However, this trip something changed that made my visits with her much pleasanter and even enjoyable for us both.
And that something was singing.
For some reason, this time I decided to sing to her – just silly songs from childhood, like Teddy Bears’ Picnic and Oh I Do Like To Be Beside the Seaside. Each time I sang she really brightened up. She actually engaged with me and the singing.
In hindsight, I think the combination of eye contact and singing was helpful. She tapped out the beat, occasionally sang a few words with me, and often finished off the song with a little rhythmic flourish! It was really lovely! And something we could share and enjoy together.
Singing transformed the nature of the visits for me – both in how I approached and thought about them ahead of time, and, of course, while I was there with her.
Before I see her again, most likely in October, I desperately want people to sing to her. I want her to have more music in her life somehow, though background music is, for the most part, too remote for her now.
Luckily, the care home where she lives is currently in the process of bringing more music to the dementia unit, and a couple of friends of mine who visit her occasionally are also singing to her.
Of course, this does not change the difficulties and challenges, not to mention sadness, of her situation.
But it has changed something – even if only, for her, in those moments when the singing happens. But that is all she has now, so the present moment is everything. (If you have a loved one in this same situation, I strongly suggest you try singing to them.)
And so, I’m attempting process these two powerful experiences, and understand what it is about singing that makes it so compelling.
I noticed that I have been using the words “uplifting” to describe the experience of singing at the wedding, and “brightened up” to describe my mum’s response to me singing to her.
These words describe not only an emotional response to the singing, but the palpable physical response that is part of it, too. When we experience something as “uplifting” we not only feel inspired, happy and/or hopeful on the inside, there is a synergistic physical expression of this in our physical body – a release of tension that turns into something more spontaneous, open, and breathable, with a natural uprightness and expansiveness,.
In both these situations our collective natural uprightness – our posture – improved. Not just me – the others in the chorus, and even my mum, as she became more alert and engaged.
UP is an important concept in the Alexander Technique. It’s the direction we aim for in our posture and movement. It’s also the opposite of compression and depression.
In fact, many singers use the Alexander Technique to improve the quality of their singing and performing. If ever there was an activity where it is clear that your body is your instrument, singing is it.
The lovely ease and uprightness you get from applying Alexander Technique principles combined with the joy of singing with others is truly magical. Not to mention, they’re both amazing stress-busters!
I’m still unravelling my experiences.
What I do know is that singing is powerful, and Alexander Technique is empowering. That’s an incredible combination!
What are your experiences with singing (even in the shower!) and/or Alexander Technique?
Can you relate to my experiences?
As always, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave your comment in the space bel
* “Seasons of Love” is a song by Jonathan Larson from the musical Rent.
I love the blog! Singing is so good for the soul. I actually discovered it after Alexander school. And then went on to become an opera singer. It was one of the most challenging and uplifting experiences! In fact in some old book I remember some sort of saying that says that singing is the means by which An Angel makes it into heaven to sit next to God.
<3 Love that, Gary! I'd assumed the opera came before AT - that's amazing that it came afterwards. I can imagine that the experience of coming to opera-singing after your AT training made that learning process more effective. You're very lucky to have both so deeply in your life.
Lovely Imogen – I want to add, that this experience has changed how you remember your visit with your mum, not just how you approached the visit or being with your mum. I think this is very powerful since it is a good memory of recent time spent with her. As we know from being with people with dementia, it is sometimes hard to have even a moment that is “uplifting” or feels positive.
Also, the connections you make to up are very important – and I’d missed those in our discussions of your singing adventures with your mum. I think you also felt uplifted by the activity of singing to/with your mum. I’m so glad you discovered this and are sharing it!
Wow, you are so right about the way I remember the visits. I hadn’t thought of it that way. It’s amazing to have some good, positive, recent memories of being with her. And yes – uplifting for all involved, me included! Thank you for these insights.
This is beautiful. I’ve just started researching The Alexander Technique and I came across your post. I’m also a piano teacher and music’s been a part of my life since I can remember. I’ve seen the power music has on people in nursing homes because my father, a life long piano player and entertainer. He still plays in a restaurant once a week and for residents of assisted living facilities- and he’s 82. Not only has music kept my father going since the passing of my mother, it’s also a gift he shares with people who really need it. I’ve seen how residents, many with alzheimer’s, brighten UP when the piano music starts. I’ve witnessed foot tapping, smiles, eyes lighting up and more- when the music plays. Theh power of music, be it singing, piano playing or on any other instrument, reaches deep into their mind and soul and stirs something. It’s special, it’s real and so amazingly touching to see. Thanks for sharing your wonderful post and I hope your beautiful mother is doing well.
Thank you so much, Ellen. Music can indeed be powerful. I love that your dad is still playing the piano, AND bringing joy to others. My mother was also a life-long musician – a piano player and teacher, and high school music teacher. Her Alzheimers started about four and a half years ago and has progressed quite quickly. However, long after she had lost the ability to do “practical” things like make a meal or dress herself, she could still play the piano, and did so a LOT while she was at home, and even a little bit at the beginning of her time in the nursing home. I think at those times it was really lovely for her – something she could still do and enjoy, and claim her identity even. I’m glad she is still able to have some music in her life, even if she’s not making it herself anymore.
My mother had dementia the last 12 years of her life. Music was always a powerful way of communication with her. She lived in Buenos Aires, where I am from. I visited a couple of times a year. Her caretakers always had the music she liked on: the 3 tenors concert, Frank Sinatra and boleros. I am a classical singer and she was very happy every time I had a concert. There was one particular song, Amapola, which she sang to me when I was little. I sang it to her every time I visited. The last year of her life there was a tear coming down her cheek every time I sang this song to her, which was so moving to see that there was still this kind of understanding left in her. When I have concerts of Spanish songs I always include Amapola in her honor.
That’s so lovely that she was able to have so much music in her life right to the end. My mum’s care home is starting to do a better job at bringing more music into the dementia unit. My mum was a classically trained pianist and had been a high school music teacher and private piano teacher. I tried singing a few things to her from school (I was a pupil there and in many choirs and singing groups as a teen) – madrigals and a couple of other things we sang in choir, but they didn’t have quite the same impact as the songs she’d known since childhood, somehow. That’s so lovely and quite moving that you include Amapola in your concerts in her honor. Thank you so much for your comment.