Melody as Therapy : Shy, Frightened? A Singing Class Offers Solutions

Times Staff Writer

John Luikens was singing a spirited version of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" in front of a large audience when suddenly he forgot the words.

It was a doubly frightening experience for Luikens, 34, a printer who has no aspirations to be an entertainer. His voice obviously lacked technical training, and some of the notes he sang were flat or off-key. His strained, nervous expressions turned to confusion and fear when the realization that he had forgotten the words struck him.

But, instead of squirming uncomfortably when Luikens held his hands up and admitted aloud that he was now "scared to death," the audience of family and friends, who had listened attentively, erupted in supportive applause.

Thunderous Ovation

After prompting, Luikens completed the song confidently, dancing and laughing. He smiled broadly as a thunderous ovation from the audience swelled over him.

Luikens, along with several other "singers" of varying quality, put their best--and worst--voices forward in a recital of the Joy of Singing workshop, a self-help group that emphasizes self-expression through singing as therapy to overcome emotional problems and insecurities.

By performing a specially chosen song, singing in front of an audience and receiving a positive response, no matter how badly they sing, group members hope to carry some of the determination they gained from the experience into their daily lives, according to group leaders.

"By traditional standards, a lot of people who join our group are not good singers," said Warren Lyons, a theatrical producer and entertainer who formed Joy of Singing in 1977. "But, by human standards, these folks are incredible, in terms of the courage and the insight they can gain into themselves by just taking everything inside them and putting it out for all the world to see."

For Luikens, joining Joy of Singing was a way of overcoming his painful shyness and acquiring an assertiveness that he said can be applied in his printing business. Mechanical drawer Nanette Champeau, 33, said she wanted to learn how to express anger that she had repressed for several years. Bill Stone, 18, an Army private, said he hoped singing in front of an audience would help him gain happiness and find direction in life.

The performance at the Debbie Reynolds Professional Studios in North Hollywood featured some songs co-written by Gretchen Cryer, lyricist and star of "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road," a critically acclaimed musical about the ambitions, expectations and frustrations of American women.

Several soloists made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in singing ability and stage presence. A few forgot their lyrics, but they never quit.

Mathematician Stan Kaplan, 53, who couldn't keep time with the accompanist when he sang Carly Simon's "Haven't Got Time for the Pain," snapped his fingers and smiled. Bank employee Frank Hill, 50, extended his arms during a barely audible rendition of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart." Secretary Anna-Lois Sponheim, 59, stammered during the first few verses of "If," a song about a jilted lover, and then gained confidence as she began speaking the words.

Computer data processor Sheila Goldner, 40, danced and twirled as she attempted the operatic "Italian Street Song."

"When many people join the group, they never think they will be able to do anything in front of a group of people, especially sing," said Lyons' wife, Judith Siegfried, a dancer and singer who runs the workshop with him. "At the beginning, you have people saying they can't, and then a week later they are doing what they said they couldn't do. They can carry that out in the world with them. They have no more excuses."

The workshops, conducted in three sessions lasting a total of 24 hours at the studios, cost $295. Participants start out singing "Happy Birthday" in front of the group, and gradually the shyness and embarrassment of performing start to disappear, Siegfried said. They are assigned a song that illustrates what they are feeling or trying to express. Then they perform it in front of the group or another audience at the end of the week.

"We create a place where these people, some of whom are very scared, feel safe to express themselves and where they can be totally themselves," Siegfried said. "Whether they're angry or sad, it's OK for them to feel the way they feel and express it in song."

The workshop sessions appear to combine the elements of a play audition, a therapy encounter group session and a cheerleading rally. As members perform, colleagues dance in their seats or yell at the performer to put more "drama" into the singing. Applause is long and sustained, and the performer is encouraged by Lyons to "accept our applause."

Audience in Tears

During a recent workshop, as Luikens rehearsed "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?", Siegfried, sitting in a director's chair at the rear of the large rehearsal room, broke into tears.

"John, you don't know how much you've touched me," said Siegfried as she wiped her eyes. "The part of you that was broken when you first came into this workshop has been healed. You've touched a very deep part of me."

Luikens, of Hawthorne, said that for several years he had been afraid of "everything that moved. I was very defensive, but most people thought I was angry. I just thought something was wrong with me and that there was nothing I could do about it."

Luikens' therapist recommended that he try Joy of Singing.

"It was sort of funny, because in parochial school, I was told that there was something wrong with the way I sang," Luikens said. "But, since doing this, I find I can enjoy other people, and I don't feel so defensive anymore.

Fear Vanishes

"Of course, singing 'Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?' makes me feel silly, but then it helps me not to take myself so seriously. That song means something to me, because the Big Bad Wolf is what I allow to come into my life when someone tries to manipulate me. I feel I have more control over situations like that now."

Sunland resident Margot Stone, 36, a pattern designer, said that being able to sing in front of a group gave her "the joy of living." She explained: "Before, I was so scared, scared to get my own business, scared of going out by myself, scared of talking in front of a group of people. Now that fear has vanished."

Cryer, a friend of Lyons, attended the performance and smiled frequently as the songs were sung and acted out.

"It's so wonderful to see people taking risks with their lives, and the feeling which comes through in the singing is what's really important," Cryer said after the show. "The way these folks sang was so heartfelt. The only thing that's important is the risk."

At the conclusion of the show, all the group members stood in a line in front of the audience, singing loudly and banging tambourines. It appeared that the singers--the best and the worst--had indeed found their voice.

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