Share via

We do it in the shower. We do it in the car. We do it under our breath at work. And when no one’s home, we even do it in front of the mirror with an imaginary microphone.

And some of us even do it in the rain.

Singing. Ballads and blues, show tunes and classics.

But what separates us from professional crooners like Michael Crawford and Aretha Franklin is that they sound good. Fret not, though. As it turns out, carrying a tune isn’t all that important. The experts and James Brown agree that the very act of singing--even off key--makes us feeeeeeeel good.

“I can’t sing worth a darn, but I’ve gotten over that,” says Janeen Whalen, with a laugh. “My alter ego is a rock star, and I do the whole performance. It’s not good enough to lip-sync,” confesses the Westside aerobics instructor.

“The funniest thing is when you really get lost in a song while you’re driving your car. You’re singing away and bopping and weaving to the music and you come to a stoplight and you realize people around you are staring.”


The gym walls in Whalen’s exercise class echo with the sound of oldies like Little Eva’s “The Locomotion.” In between skips and sashays, Whalen goads students into belting out the chorus.

“I can’t hear you! Are you alive?” she shouts.

The group responds with: “We’re going riding on the freeway of love in a pink Cadillac. . . .”

“Singing elevates the energy in the room,” says Whalen. “It’s also a good test of whether you’re breathing.”

Long before Madonna, people recognized the power of singing.

Worshipers in the ancient temples of India, China and Tibet chanted to awaken chakras, thought to be the body’s energy center. And the Greek philosopher Pythagoras encouraged his students to sing each day to overcome fear and anger, worry and sorrow.

During these times of “getting in touch,” we often use singing as a way to get there.

According to the experts, singing has the power to alter our moods and conjure up memories and feelings. Singing also provides an emotional release, a way to express our thoughts and feelings, says Margaret Schaper, a USC professor of voice.

“We sing because something inside us needs to express something beyond words,” says Schaper. “Everyone can do this to some extent. The human voice is the most perfect of all instruments.”


There are times at home when Whalen will put on a melancholy song and “go to the depths and milk the emotion.” For her, it’s “The Long and Winding Road.”

“Every time that song comes on, I’m 18 years old again and sitting in my kitchen in Ireland,” she reminisces. “In the short space of the song, all the feelings I was having then come forward--the optimism and the excitement of new experiences. It even brings back the smells. I can’t help but sing along.”

According Dr. Roderic Gorney, UCLA professor of psychiatry, singing is deeply rooted in our evolutionary and individual backgrounds. The impulse to sing might be more primitive than the impulse to speak.

“Every morning in the forests of Thailand, gibbons congregate on the trees and serenade the dawn with a half-tone scale,” he says. “Whales, wolves and dogs make noises that cover a lot of pitches. My springer spaniel sometimes sounds as though he wants to sing.”

But only humans have fully developed speaking apparatus and a crucial speech center in the brain, explains Gorney--enabling more complex and powerful expressions.

The yearning to sing has little to do with musical ability or a good voice, but unless we are encouraged as children, once we reach adulthood we are too self-conscious to sing in public.


“Infants are masterful at vocalization from the moment they are born,” says Gorney. “A baby’s tone is sustained, the pitch may vary over a wide range and the volume can be enormous. As children grow, they learn inhibitions from society and can lose the freedom to vocalize.”

Says Gorney: “The primary impulse to sing is to express something welling up inside you in a way you yourself enjoy. There’s a deep physiological and psychological impulse to express emotions through language and song,” says Gorney, whose father and stepfather were an accomplished composer and lyricist, respectively.

It’s this need that has closet, car and shower singers taking center stage at local karaoke bars.

On a rainy Thursday night at Crooners at Budokhan in West Los Angeles, a group of 40 accountants arrives to sing. They come each month to relieve the stresses of tax season. It turns out that accountants are not the club’s only unlikely vocalists.

“Stockbrokers and financial analysts are the rowdiest,” observes head waitress Sunny Tepper.

Five years ago, owner Gioia Siciliano saw karaoke in Japan and decided to bring it home. A TelePrompTer guides singers through the lyrics of more than 1,000 songs.


“It’s very magical when the audience sings along,” says Siciliano. “Singing is the only thing that we have that transcends age, race and gender.”

Although the song selection runs the gamut from Prince to Bing Crosby, people tend to stick with comfortable old favorites like Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender.” Whitney Houston tunes are the top picks among women--although her vocals are difficult to match.

“Every night during Desert Storm, someone would get up and sing ‘America the Beautiful,’ ” recalls Siciliano. “Last week, we had a gentleman get on stage and propose to his girlfriend in song.”

For a little more than a song, you can practice crooning at home on a sing-along system. Some karaoke clubs and specialty shops sell sing-along machines in various formats.

Bob Benjamin doesn’t need a system to help him sing. The 56-year-old Pacific Palisades painter began singing at age 10 in his Brooklyn, N.Y., church choir and hasn’t stopped.

In college, Benjamin’s idol was Mario Lanza. He would sit in a booth at the old Music City in Hollywood, listening to recordings of the star’s arias. “I felt that if I could sing like Lanza, I could sit next to God,” he recalls.


Nowadays, Benjamin finds himself breaking into an aria in the middle of work. Public performances are limited to weddings and cruises.

“At the end of a cruise there’s typically a talent night when all the people come out of the woodwork. I usually sing ‘Granada’ and ‘Come Back to Sorrento,’ ” says Benjamin. “Then I’m a small hero for a day.”

Singing also builds our confidence beyond music.

“There’s a sense if you can sing a song, you can do anything,” says former Broadway performer Frolic Taylor. In her course, “Singing From the Soul,” Taylor helps people get over the fear of performing through improvisation and video feedback. Students “graduate” by singing a song of their choice at a West Hollywood nightclub.

For the most part, Taylor’s students choose slow ballads, often about lost love.

“People use song as a way to release emotional pain and connect with their souls,” she says. “They sing to release whatever emotion is going on in their life or to express whatever they are missing. People want to sing as naturally as they want to breathe.”

So forget what your kid brother might have said about how awful you sounded.

As USC’s Margaret Schaper puts it: “Singing is the cheapest therapy you can find.”