One thing I’ve always associated the holiday season with (besides lots of yummy food) is singing — anything and everything from Christmas caroling to hymns at church. I’ve never had a very good voice, but one thing I always noticed was that I enjoyed myself every time I sang. However, I always chalked it up to the situation rather than the act of singing itself.
When idly perusing through articles on neurological disorders, one review article reported that singing may “ameliorate speech deficits associated with conditions such as stuttering, Parkinson’s disease, acquired brain lesions and autism.” I then wondered whether singing had any benefits on mental health and found several articles that supported this theory. One study found that elderly people asked to sing had reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol and reported improved mood and reduced tension compared to a control group of other elderly participants. This effect was the same regardless of whether the subjects liked singing. Another study of amateur choral singers found that, irrespective of age, gender, nationality or well-being, these singers reported greater social and emotional health than a control group of non-singers. Whether this can be attributed to the sense of being part of a community, or the act of singing, is uncertain. Regardless, singing has its benefits.
My sister takes singing lessons, so it was easy for me to ask her teacher if I could schedule a one-time lesson with her, just to get an idea of how an introductory singing class works. She warned me that one lesson would not turn me into a master singer, for I would not be able to learn the breathing and vocal techniques necessary to improve, but I told her I was just interested in the experience. From what my sister had told me, I had expected the first fifteen minutes or so to be a warm up, which was the case. Warming up consists of scales — lots of scales — and making noises such as “ma-ma-ma.” It certainly wasn’t fun or mentally relaxing, but the point of this was to warm up my throat so I didn’t injure myself later. After that, she gave me the titular song from The Sound of Music to sing. Although I had initially expected it to be a challenge to reach the notes (I am well aware that I am no Julie Andrews), I was pleasantly surprised to realize that the range was only an octave, with no difficult high notes and had a simple rhythm. The rest of the hour passed by quickly, and the tips my teacher gave me were invaluable in improving my performance. Although, by the end, I knew that I would probably forget the difference between a head voice and a chest voice and certainly wouldn’t remember where to breathe between syllables, I had an immensely enjoyable time and would not be opposed to taking another lesson.
From this activity, I learned that the mere activity of singing was what brought me happiness. Every other time I’ve sung in a group, but this was the first time I’d done it by myself. I thought I would be self-conscious about my voice (and I was, for maybe the first five minutes), but once I got into the song, it didn’t make any difference whether or not my teacher thought I had the worst voice out of anyone she’d ever taught. I simply enjoyed the act of singing. The reason for this could come from the release of endorphins or oxytocin.
Although most studies focus on the psychological benefits of group singing, including improved mood and self-esteem, improved social interaction, an opportunity for growth and self-actualization, I believe that these benefits can be seen in individual group singing. Singing lessons are a great way for anyone too shy to sing in a group to experience first-hand the merits of singing. Overall, I consider this a great experience, and would be more than willing to have another lesson.
A very important topic is that of mental health in medical practitioners, notably medical students. According to a study in the Student British Medical Journal, 30 percent of medical students report having a mental health condition — with a majority of 80 percent stating the level of available support was poor or only moderately adequate. This column was born from these alarming statistics and aims to stimulate conversation on mental health in medical students, from providing suggestions on how to maintain one’s mental health to discussing the taboo and stigma surrounding conversations on mental health in practitioners and students, and how to eliminate it.