It's George's fault that I never sang. Freckle-faced, hair-licked, musical-fingered George. Starting in first grade, I sat behind him in the alto row in music class, and that remained my place for eight years of grammar school. He was Mr. Perfect Pitch, the kid who could play "Flight of the Bumblebee" on the piano. I'd open my mouth to sing, and he'd turn around and snap, "You're flat. You're flat."
"I've been workin' on the railroad," I'd begin.
"You're flat," I'd hear from the seat in front of me.
Pretty early on, I learned to lip-sync.
There are others like me, people who sing in the car - but only alone with the windows up - maybe quietly in church if there are several hundred other voices to hide behind. Never with any volume, mortified at the thought of being heard.
They should all get over it. Belting one out, it turns out, is good for us.
Where to belt, and with whom, can be a problem. Sure, every city has singing teachers, but what about people who aren't as much interested in learning vocal techniques as they are in inclusive, nonjudgmental group singing? The pickings are slim - an occasional workshop, a church choir that doesn't require auditions, a local karaoke bar.
But at Breitenbush Hot Springs in Oregon, I found a spring workshop called "How to Sing in the Shower." Billed as a kind of retreat for amateur singers, as well as a haven for nonsingers who wanted to sing, it filled the bill for eight of us who came together - guided by a teacher who had breathing suggestions, volume tips and lots of encouragement.
It makes intuitive sense that singing is psychologically sound -that it can elevate one's mood or provide an outlet for sadness. But a growing body of science shows that not only is singing mentally healthful, it's also physically good for you.
Singing can improve the body's immune response. In elderly people, it can reduce the use of prescription drugs, doctor visits and emergency room care. The conscious breathing from the diaphragm involved in singing can reduce stress.
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"Stress affects the immune system," says Robert Beck, a professor at the University of California, Irvine who has studied singing's effects. "If you feel good about what you're doing, the immune system recovers and gets a boost."
It was with high hopes and nary a goal of Broadway stardom that I headed to Oregon. If it was too late to sing for my own babies, now out of college and married, it wasn't too late to sing to my children's children.
That's a fairly typical motivator, says Cathleen Wilder, our workshop teacher. "A lot of people, right around their 50th birthday, decide they want to sing," she says. "They tell me they want to sing to their grandchildren."
The seven others possessed a variety of talents and fears. The setting, a fend-for-yourself rustic retreat in the rain forest on the west slope of Mount Jefferson, was enough to call the vocal muse.
Wilder, from Seattle, had the voice of an angel, the training of an opera singer and the will to convince people that singing is their birthright. "I don't care about the research," she said. "I know it makes you feel good. It's about the joy."
Mumbling mantras such as "what have you got to lose" and "how bad could it be," my turn came to sing a note, solo. I laughed nervously, offered an apology for the sound that soon would escape. Wilder hit a key, and I tried to match it. "Close," she said. "Try again." She hit the note again while raising her conducting hand a bit higher. I raised my voice a bit higher. "Good," she said. "You got it."
Two tries, and I got the note right, guided only by the keyboard and her hand. No one declared me flat. Nor did anyone tell fellow student Helen Rueda to shut up, as her friends once did when she sang Christmas carols. We sang corny old songs, like "Buffalo Gals" and classics like "Amazing Grace."
To my ears, we got better with every song. Not everyone had the shy history I did. Four were confident amateur singers, with church choir or other choral singing experience.
But Rueda, who only sings while riding her bike alone in isolated areas, was glad to have a soul mate like me. Neal Lemery plays the piano but said, "I find it really hard to sing with other people." And Sean Harvey plays the guitar but wanted more confidence to sing while he plays.
Many people think they can't match a note. But, like me, they are likely better than they think they are. With all due humility, when I sang alone, I sounded quiet but sweet to my own ears, following Wilder's bouncing hand with my voice. And when I sang with others, I had their voices to follow as well.
It's true, perfect pitch is a rare gift. Scientists now call it absolute pitch, and those who have it might be heard to casually say "E flat" when they hear a horn blare.
But about 40 percent of people have pitch memory, meaning they can accurately match the pitch of their favorite songs just by recalling it, according to research published in 1994 in the journal Perception and Psychophysics by Daniel J. Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal and author of Your Brain on Music. Another 44 percent can come close, within two semitones.
For my purposes, a semitone is close enough. As we sang through the weekend, the four confident singers arranged themselves between the more hesitant four. Standing next to good singers helped me sing in tune and together all of our voices got stronger.
That staggering of good singers and inexperienced voices is likely what people have been doing for millennia - in the tribe, village or even the cave, says Wilder.
Unfortunately, in the industrialized West, community singing rarely happens anymore. "We're in an era now which is very artificial when you consider our evolution as a species," adds Levitin. "For the last few hundred years, Western culture has created a division between performer and audience."
Singing feels good, in part, because it's primal. "You're tapping into something that has an ancient, evolutionary origin," Levitin adds. "We're thinking with brains that have had music in them for tens of thousands of years."
Equal parts neuroscientist and rocker, Levitin played guitar in his youth with Van Morrison, helped Stevie Wonder compile his greatest hits and was a producer and sound engineer for the Grateful Dead and Santana.
His fascination with sound eventually led him to Stanford University and a second career in research. His laboratory at McGill is equipped with pianos and guitars as well as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) equipment, which measures real-time activity in various parts of the brain.
"There's evidence from my lab and others that listening to music produces endorphins and the neurotransmitter dopamine, the so-called feel-good hormone," he says.
In one experiment, he scanned the brains of 13 nonmusicians listening to classical music. His July 2005 report in the online journal NeuroImage concluded that regions of the brain that modulate dopamine, including the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental, grew active.
Although the volunteers were listening, not singing, it's only a short step to apply the results to vocalizing. "You can't sing without hearing music," Levitin says.
Some researchers, including Walter J. Freeman, a neurobiologist at the University of California at Berkeley, think that when people sing, oxytocin is released. A handful of small studies support the theory.
Oxytocin is the hormone that surges through new mothers after they give birth and when they breastfeed. It courses through men and women during sex and even when couples gaze romantically into each other's eyes. It increases bonding and helps imprint memory.
Oxytocin peaks during adolescence - probably one reason that the songs we hear and sing during our teen years are the ones we always remember.
The hormone's release is likely part of the reason that group singing forms bonds. "When we sing and dance together, our emotions are synchronized," says David Huron, a musicologist at both Ohio State University's school of music and center for cognitive science. "Everyone is on the same emotional page."
The military undoubtedly understands that, preparing troops to act in unison with rhythmic marching songs.
Singing not only fosters fuzzy feelings, but can also boost the body's immune response. Researchers at UC Irvine had 30 local chorale members chew on dental cotton before and after singing, then measured levels of an immunoglobulin, IgA, which is present in saliva and helps the body fight infections.
Their report in the fall 2000 journal Music Perception showed that levels of IgA increased an average of 150 percent after rehearsals and 240 percent after a public performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis.
"We can't say it's going to fight off colds," says UC Irvine's Beck, lead author of the paper. "But under proper conditions, singing does arouse the immune system."
Prompted by such biological studies, Gene Cohen, director of the center on aging, health and humanities at George Washington University and author of The Creative Age, tested two groups of people over 65 to see if they got any practical benefit from singing.
One group sang weekly, led by a professional conductor. The others remained active in their usual ways but weren't part of the choir. The study, financed by the National Endowment for the Arts and released in April 2006, reported that after a year, the singers rated their health higher than did the nonsingers. They had fewer doctor visits, used less medication and fell less often.
The singers' grown children also noticed the improvement in their parents. "After every concert, I'd be mobbed by adult children, saying, 'Please. This must never stop,'" Cohen says. "Two years after the study ended, the chorale is still going, and the group is twice its original size."
At least one cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker, is skeptical of a primal human need for music. Instead, he sees music and singing as a kind of linguistic dessert - delicious but not necessary. In his 1997 book How the Mind Works, he wrote, "I suspect music is auditory cheesecake."
But other research findings point to better mood among elders, college students and homeless men who sing in choirs; to improvements in breathing among emphysema patients after singing lessons; and to better posture among amateur singers.
Watching all this research, with an eye on combining the arts and learning, is John Frohnmayer, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and now a professor at Oregon State University. "Music is the right brain; language is the left," he says. "And those pathways are very robust."
Back in the Oregon woods, I learned a couple of things that will stick in my mind as I sing more - in my car, in the shower, to my grandchildren. Breathing is natural, and so is breathing for singing. Instead of "Inhale, exhale," think "Inhale, phonate." Singing is just inhaling and then making sound with the exhale - nothing more complicated than that.
Most important, I learned that I've got a voice, like everyone does, that blends with others.
Susan Brink writes for the Los Angeles Times.