Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything. Plato
Music has always been central to my life. From the age of five, I would clamber onto the piano stool and pick out the songs my Dad had just played, I especially loved the black notes! I started piano lessons when I was six and my mother tells me she never had to ask me to practice, as I always loved playing. The piano was then and still is my go-to, my light, my comfort, and it remains so to this day.
And I’ve also always enjoyed singing, but like so many of us, I too didn’t make it through the school choir auditions! Filled with confidence and a passion for music, this came as quite a shock; a real slap in the face, and it took me a long while to get over!
Years later, as a primary class teacher, I made music everybody’s business and ensured that each child who wanted to be part of the school choir, was welcomed and encouraged. Once children know that you believe in them and their voice, they let go of their inhibitions and become creative, expressive individuals, having fun. Yes – I do believe that everyone can sing!
I am fortunate to be a singing leader for a charity called Music for the Memory. This group is for people from all walks of life, with any form of mild to moderate dementia. Up until a few weeks ago, we were meeting once a fortnight, but now, given the current situation, we are not able to do so for the time being. I knew that I would really miss singing and meeting with this group, and I also knew that for some members, the Music for the Memory session had become the highlight of their week.
So this Monday, after a lot of planning, we ran our first online Music for the Memory singing session and everyone loved it! We knew the quality wouldn’t be brilliant, as we were singing from our front rooms, but it didn’t seem to matter – everyone sang their hearts out. I led a body and vocal warm-up and then my colleague and I took it in turns to lead some action songs, and after that, we chose some familiar golden-oldies from our songbook. Our pianist had recorded all the songs onto her keyboard for us to sing to, and bingo … with the help of Zoom, it all worked brilliantly! To see everyone’s faces lighting up as they sang familiar songs, with many of them getting out of their chairs and dancing along to ‘Let’s Twist Again’, was truly wonderful. The experience had connected us all again, and the team was on a natural high for the rest of the day! It’s a joyous thing to do this and I am truly lifted by it.
So what happens to our brains when we sing?
Whether we are listening to music, singing or playing an instrument, music stimulates brain activity and singing enables people to express themselves, feel positive and interact with others. And it has many other benefits too …
When we listen to the music that we love, we increase the release of the mood-enhancing chemical, dopamine. Other natural ways to increase this are through sleep, exercise, and meditation for example and there are many others. When we release large amounts of dopamine it can improve our mood, increasing feelings of pleasure, reward and motivation and it also supports our memory function.
Professor Graham Welch, Chair of Music Education at the UCL, Institute of Education has written about the benefits of singing on the ‘Sing Up’ website. The ‘Sing Up’ resource is for children and young people, providing many singing and musical opportunities. In his article, Professor Welch says that singing develops fine and gross motor control in the vocal system, which in turn supports effective communication. It improves the cardiovascular system, alertness, thoracic activity, and breathing muscles and is linked to longevity, stress reduction and general health. He goes on to say that singers tend to have greater connections between certain areas of the brain than non-singers, and there appears to be more developed auditory attention and perception for people with impaired hearing. Singing with others encourages supportive and empathetic relationships, coordination, pitch, rhythm, timbre, as well as enhancing our language and enabling us to express our emotions. We use our voices to communicate and express ourselves, and singing supports this too.
Seeing how our Music for the Memory members react to the songs during a singing session is both heartwarming and fascinating. Feelings from the past are often triggered for them and they are more able to express their emotions through singing these familiar songs than at any other time. Singing and music and sometimes even dancing to the songs, can create calm, reduce stress and help them connect with others. It’s a truly beautiful thing to be part of.
As a headteacher, I was keen to promote singing throughout my school, regularly witnessing the positive impact music had on all areas of learning. However, it had a dual role to play, because whenever work got on top of me, or I felt stressed about something, I would get out of my office and go for a walk. I knew for sure, that when I walked through those corridors I would hear children singing. Whatever they were learning, whether inside or outside, during lessons, break time or lunchtime – music would permeate throughout the classrooms and believe me, apart from hearing children laughing, there is no sound more uplifting than hearing young children sing!
During the last few weeks and in the foreseeable future, the Music for the Memory group will be singing together each week, connected and lifted by the power of music. You may already be a singer or even lead a singing group, or you may have always wanted to sing but haven’t yet had the confidence to start. Well, I urge you to start now! I have no step-by-step instructions here on how to start singing, but I thoroughly recommend you just do it!
Believe in yourself and your voice and enjoy the moment, remembering all the benefits that you will gain from it … and I’m sure that we could all do with an extra large dollop of dopamine at the moment!
Go on … enjoy the ‘Light of Music’