I was standing in the tunnel at the Atlantic Festival Theatre with my camera up to my eye capturing moments from the Deep Roots Music Festival when I started to cry. Arguably, I was going through a rough time (as I had recently exited a long and painful relationship), but as is the unfortunate custom in our culture, I had been “nobly” holding in my emotions and getting on with my role of taking photographs. That is until Coco Love Alcorn stepped on to the stage and began to sing, “Out of the hard times in life comes rebirth.” Without realizing it, and with watery eyes, I gently began to sing along. After a few moments, I noticed I was not alone: not alone in my singing, and not alone in my pain.
As humans we are wired for connection. We have an inherent longing for belonging. One of the reasons singing together is so satisfying and pleasurable is that it activates a sense of connection (with each other, but also with our own emotional world), vocalizing and normalizing the challenges of being human, and reassuring us that we are not alone.
As I experienced that night at the festival, immersing ourselves in music through singing together can help us identify, experience and process difficult or painful emotions. It does this in part by inviting us to momentarily trade our rational, logical knowing for our intuitive, heart-led knowing, tapping into a wealth of creative and comforting collective wisdom and common humanity.
Singing together also feels good because it invites us to be fully engaged with ourselves and others in the present moment (rather than being stuck in a place of ruminating about the past or worrying about the future). Stepping into this kind of presence offers us a deep sense of aliveness, where the joys of reverence, curiosity, and wonder become more easily available to us.
When we listen to music that we like, our brain releases a neurotransmitter and “feel-good hormone” called dopamine which affects our mood and emotions, strengthens our immune system, and supports learning, focus, and motivation. And when we take our experience of music a step further by singing together, our bodies release oxytocin, which contributes to the creation of pro-social behaviours such as empathy, trust, and meaningful connection.
The deep or diaphragmatic breathing that comes naturally when we sing stimulates the vagus nerve, which is connected to our vocal cords and the muscles at the back of our throats, as well as our brain, gut, lungs and heart. Stimulating the vagus nerve activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and produces a “rest and digest” response, slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure and producing an overall sense of well-being, leaving us with more resource to both welcome whatever is arising for us in the moment and create authentic and meaningful connections with others.
So whether it’s around a campfire with friends, on a road trip with family, in a choir, in a yoga or meditation studio, or along with a recording, the simple act of singing can cultivate a strong sense of connection, presence, and well-being. After a year and half of limited opportunities, this simple yet powerful practice of singing together seems even more precious to me than ever. As things begin to open up again, I will be seeking as many opportunities as possible to join my voice with others in song.
Heidi Kalyani has been exploring the power of singing since the long late-night car rides of her childhood. She hosts group “call and response” singing sessions in the yoga/meditation tradition of kirtan, and improvises lullabies to soothe her nervous system and warm her heart. She lives near Wolfville in a small house with lots of windows. For more information visit heartwideopen.ca.
Photo of Coco Love Alcorn courtesy of Heidi Kalyani.