Many people sing in the shower, others sing in choirs or at their place of worship, and some do karaoke. Other than the joy singing brings us, does singing provide any health benefits? I consulted with Billie Bandermann, the choir director of Hashirim, a Jewish community choir, to get some answers.
In addition to conducting, Billie has been teaching voice for more than four decades, including instructing octogenarian singers. According to Billie, proper breathing is a requirement for good singing. Specifically, “Inhale deep and wide to fill the lungs from the bottom upwards while expanding the ribs sideways.” To produce optimum sound, Billie elucidates: “It is important to keep shoulders, neck and jaw relaxed without tension. Inhale correctly by not raising shoulders, but focus on expanding the rib cage instead. To produce a clear tone, forget the neck and throat. Inhale on a vowel, relax jaw and soft palate, and move air forward toward the face. The aim of singing should be effortless expression.” She has noted that the more one sings, the clearer the tone; voice range and breath support improve – even in her 80 year old students. Medical studies tend to support Billie’s observations. In patients with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), those who sang in a weekly musical class showed improvement in respiratory function and reduced sensation of breathlessness. As a side note, in another study, laughter has a positive influence on respiratory function too!
Billie encourages members of the choir to memorize their parts. “Memorization promotes a higher level of understanding of the music, helps singers keep their eyes on the conductor, helps in phrasing and appreciation of how one passage leads to another.” It is unknown whether singing can prevent dementia, but many neuroscience experts think it may at least delay age related changes in cognition. Billie relates a remarkable story regarding her mother. At the age of 51 her mother had a stroke which resulted in her inability to speak. Strangely, she retained her ability to sing – including the lyrics of songs. The inference from this is the portion of the brain involved with singing is a distinct entity from the speech center, and may strengthen our neurological reserve when it comes to memory.
In one study, protective levels of IgA antibodies were measured in choir singers and compared with levels of listeners to the choir. The singers had significantly higher amount of IgA. In another study involving older adults, it was found the level of the stress hormone, cortisol, was reduced in their saliva after singing. Billie was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 35. Prior to this she had been able to play violin, flute and guitar. But after her diagnosis of RA, singing remained her only form of musical expression. “If it weren’t for singing, I would have been bogged down.” Remarkably, her arthritis is quiescent whenever she conducts a choir. She never feels any pain when conducting, even when she fell and broke her elbow minutes before a performance!
Other Benefits of Singing
Billie comments that it doesn’t matter how well you sing to enjoy the benefits. She has been singing since age 3, and hasn’t stopped yet. It distracts her from the everyday worries of life. “Music (singing) has been a miracle in my life. It allows me to connect with others in a way that’s not possible by words.” Indeed, studies show that belonging to a choir provides community and social benefits, and helps alleviate loneliness. One incident stands out in Billie’s recollection. Eight years ago she was suffering terribly for a two month period with vertigo. She miraculously recovered when she stepped in front of the choir to begin a Hashirim rehearsal. “Singing reminded me that I didn’t want to be sick.”
Singing in a choir or other group may bring us social and health benefits which extend beyond the delight of producing music. Many organizations and communities offer enjoyable opportunities for group singing. Learn more about Hashirim.
Jerry Saliman, MD is the violin accompanist for Hashirim. He is a volunteer internist at Samaritan House Medical Clinic in San Mateo. He retired from Kaiser South San Francisco after working there more than 30 years. While at Kaiser SSF, Dr. Saliman was also Chief of Patient Education. He received the 2012 “Lifetime Achievement Award” given by the Kaiser SSF Medical Staff.
Editing acknowledgement: Ellen Saliman
Neither the PJCC or our guest columnists provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please make your health care decisions in partnership with your health care provider.