When in doubt, open your mouth. That’s the first lesson Doug Dunsmore teaches me during a five-day retreat designed to turn even insecure non-singers into melodic songbirds.
Dunsmore, the choirmaster at Gower Street United in St. John’s, N.L., is the music director of Come All Ye, a “singcation” held every October in Port Rexton, N.L. Two dozen of us gather at an elegant inn on the rugged coast where a lonely foghorn sounds in the still of the night.
“Anyone can sing,” says Dunsmore. “It’s 90 percent brains, 10 percent talent.” I’m not so sure. I’ve spent a lifetime thinking my voice is as monotonous as that foghorn. I’m haunted, still, by a disastrous karaoke performance I mangled so badly friends jumped on stage to help. I sing quietly in church. I keep my mouth shut in the shower.
Dunsmore offers musical instruction that doubles as sound life advice: “Be sure to breathe,” “Stand tall,” “Don’t let yourself get small,” “Animate your face,” “Get over yourself.” Hitting a wrong note isn’t the worst thing, not trying is. “If you screw up, just keep going,” he says.
I discover that singing in community is like being hooked up to an IV drip of dopamine. Not since I channelled Cher as a preteen singing into my hairbrush have I felt such a rush of joyful choral confidence.
Studies show choristers have lower rates of depression and anxiety and benefit from the calming effect of synchronized heartbeats when they join voices. Communal singing offers one of life’s rare opportunities for “truly sublime moments,” says Dunsmore. “We’re better together.”
At the final night’s performance, I’m surprised when tears spring to my eyes. I’m overcome with a sense of intimacy, even love, for my fellow songsters, strangers just days ago. It’s a strain to reach some of the high notes, but I carry on. I may never have perfect pitch, but I think I’ve finally found my voice.
This column first appeared in the May 2019 issue of Broadview with the title “Songs with Strangers.” For more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.