The first song my mother taught me was “Jesus Loves Me.” I sang it with gusto because back then, I was secure in the knowledge that I was indeed loved by the long-haired man on the cover of The Golden Children’s Bible. She taught me many songs in the same vein: “He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands,” “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.”
Beyond the Bible tunes, there was “You Are My Sunshine,” a song that I found immensely comforting even though it also made me a little sad. It must have made my mom sad, too, because my father had left her to love another. In her early 20s, with no financial support beyond mother’s allowance and a bit of cash earned by housecleaning and picking fruit, my mom had two young kids to raise on her own. Actually, it’s a wonder that she sang at all.
“This Little Light of Mine” was another favourite, as it made me want to try and shine bright, at least for my mom. Nevertheless, I lost my love for solo singing when my mom asked me to sing “The Lord Is My Shepherd” at her wedding to my stepfather in 1971. I was nine. This was when I realized that singing into a hairbrush in front of my bedroom dresser mirror was an entirely different experience than singing into a microphone in front of 200 guests. Self-consciousness passed over me like a dark cloud when I heard my thin and breathy voice. I did not shine bright.
Unfortunately, fear about what other people think stops a lot of us from engaging in one of life’s most pleasurable and soulful pursuits. And that’s a shame because singing makes us feel better in just about every way. It spikes dopamine in our brains, flooding us with a sense of well-being so that we even get a lift whenever we sing the blues. It allows people with dementia to access happy memories. What’s more, scientists note that the music of our youth leaves such a lasting imprint because of the rapid neurological development that occurs during the drama of puberty. As a result, today’s elderly can tap into a reservoir of neurological bliss marked by the likes of Duke Ellington. Perhaps by the time my generation of baby boomers gets to the old age home, Captain & Tennille will do the same.
Singing in a group is even better than singing alone. Studies show that choristers have lower rates of depression and anxiety and may even live longer. That’s because singers’ heartbeats synchronize when they all join voices, creating a calming effect. In that way, singing is similar to doing a yoga class.
I have some sense of these benefits of community singing thanks to an old group of pals — a few of whom are guitar players — with whom I’ve been belting out the same dozen songs at gatherings for the past 35 years. I’ve also spent the last two decades singing during Sunday services — first in the United Church and now in the Unitarian church. I have lots of favourites from both Voices Unitedand Singing the Living Tradition. Their respective hymnbooks happen to share a slew of similar songs, including “Morning Has Broken,” “Peace Like a River,” “Spirit of Life” and, of course, “Amazing Grace,” the one hymn that can bring tears to the eyes of even the most stubborn atheist.
So I have no doubt that music can transport us to a higher spiritual plane. “Singing is a way of escaping,” the French chanteuse Edith Piaf once said. “It’s another world. I’m no longer on earth.”
In an attempt to reach that elevated status, I figure that more choral exercise will do me some good. So I join a crowd of 150 when the famous Choir, Choir, Choir duo of Nobu Adilman and Daveed Goldman comes to Hamilton, bringing together a large group of strangers to learn pop songs in three-part harmony. After a two-hour rehearsal, which culminated in a performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” goosebumps ripple along my flesh, and I'm filled with wanton love for every fellow songster in the room.
I then check out the Tuesday Choir, a drop-in group that meets at a Hamilton pub every week. Someone passes out a songbook, and I’m pleased to find that the tunes are familiar and easy: “Jolene,” “Wagon Wheel” and “Ring of Fire.” I also recognize a few star singers — well, folks from around town who perform publicly. I keep my voice low, worried that I’ll hit a wrong note. But by the end of the night, my self consciousness is tossed aside like a bouquet thrown by a drunken bride, and I’m swept up in the energy of the group as it belts out The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” with anguished abandon.
Two weeks later, a friend invites me to practice with a new choir made up of women affected by and concerned with homelessness. Singin’ Women is directed by Laura Thomas, a highly regarded local conductor. She helps us to successfully muddle through a somewhat complicated piece, “BeGone Dull Care,” which is based on an anonymous poem from the late 18th century. “It’s the ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ of the English Renaissance,” Thomas explains. I scan the dozen or so faces around me, and while I have no doubt these women carry a load of worry, they sure do look happy singing together.
I also join in a weekend choral gathering at Unicamp, a Unitarian campground, where I sit in a circle to sing with a couple of dozen folks. I get misty eyed as I harmonize about going down to the river to pray, needing somebody to lean on and being captive on the carousel of time. We finish one session with a rousing rendition of “I’ll Fly Away,” and I’m amused that our group of non-theistic Unitarians sings as rapturously as I imagine evangelicals do about flying off “to a land where joy will never end.”
Indeed, music has the ability to touch every emotional chord, like a run of notes on a scale. Mostly, it makes my troubles melt like lemon drops. “I don’t sing because I’m happy,” the American philosopher William James said. “I’m happy because I sing.”
That same night, I find myself a part of a spontaneous, a cappella campfire sing-along, along with a bunch of mid-life women who can recall — with astonishing accuracy — the soundtrack of our ‘70s youth. We belt out “Delta Dawn,” The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” “Knock Three Times” and “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” from the famous Coca-Cola commercial. We are 14 years old again, minus the acne and the insecurity, of course. Music is the best time machine — ever!
My friend Donna then leans over and says the five words I’ve never once heard: “You have a nice voice.” Really? When I get home, I book a singing lesson with Jocelyn Rasmussen, a London, Ont.-based recording artist who has taught at Julliard and is the author of Meant to Be Heard: Tuning In To the Grace of Your Voice. I want to see if she can help me sing even better. But it’s been decades since I sang solo, and I feel like that nervous nine-year-old at my parents’ wedding.
“Pretend you have a mango in your mouth,” she tells me as she gets me to warm up my voice by singing vowels: “Ahhh . . . Eeee . . . Oooo . . . Ahhh . . . Eeee . . . Oooo.”
I feel foolish, laughing nervously, and the imaginary mango falls out of my mouth. I do the warm-up over and over until my cheeks are quivering and I’m surprised at what actually comes out: a ringing like the sound that happens when you run your finger over the thin rim of a glass. I continue with the vocal workout, humming and squeaking like Minnie Mouse, and growling like an impatient bear. All of this helps to “shape the articulators,” stabilize the larynx and morph sound into song, Rasmussen says. She also tells me that I’m a mezzo, the most common female singing voice. Lower than a soprano but higher than a contralto, it puts me in the good company of Beyoncé, Ethel Merman and Madonna. Rasmussen also says that I have a solid choral voice and that if I want to make it stronger, I’ll have to practice. She suggests that I sing in the car (“because no one’s around”), sing with the vacuum (“it has lots of overtones”) and sing in the shower (“the bathroom has magnificent resonance”).
And her final bit of advice?: “Don’t sing to be good, just sing for the joy of it.”
On the hour-long ride home, I listen to Rasmussen’s CD, “Singing is Praying Twice,” which she produced for charity after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer several years ago. It features songs Rasmussen calls her “healing prayers,” including “The Serenity Prayer”, “Amazing Grace,” and “An Irish Blessing.” “I sing them to start my day, clear my mind and steady my heart,” she says. I sing along with the ones that I know, and when the CD finishes, I keep on singing, going through my own memory bank — right back to the early songs that my mother taught me. They create a pull of longing for a time when my belief was certain and when my mother’s love was unconditional.
I'm in full-throttle, nostalgic mode when I think about the emergence of deathbed singers and threshold choirs, and how the songs that bring us comfort at the end of our life are often the same as those that comforted us from the very beginning. I hope that I’ll be fortunate enough to have music mark my own ending. Maybe my kids will sing “This Little Light of Mine” to me the way my mother once did.
All our life’s a circle, after all.