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How many times have you heard friends remark, "I can't sing to save my life"? And yet singing is the most natural form of music-making in existence. There is song in every society. Mothers sing to their babies to quieten them. Celebrations usually call for singing en masse. Acts of worship involve the songful use of the voice, whether in an imam's call to prayer, a synagogue cantor or a church congregation tackling hymns. And whether your preference is for pop, classical, jazz or world music, you'll find singing at its core, the most significant and accessible force that music can have. 

It has become clear that the benefits of music, and especially singing, run far deeper than we'd thought. Singing is not only instinctive: it is also healthy. Its gifts to each of us, should we choose to do it, can include increased oxygen circulation through better breathing techniques, pain relief (yes, seriously), and improvement in conditions such as asthma. And that's before you add the resulting greater confidence, enhanced communicative abilities and better energy levels. Among the elderly, singing has been shown to improve eyesight, inspire patients suffering from Alzheimer's and slow the ageing of the voice itself. 

Can't sing? Won't sing? There's been a general shift in Western society from the active to the passive. Many of us now assume that most things are done for us by someone else, probably "experts". Collectively, we've become observers, not participants, consumers, not creators. We expect others to care for our children and our elderly parents. We watch sport and music rather than expend effort to take part in it. If we become obese, we might sue fast-food companies rather than taking responsibility for our own health. No wonder we expect others to sing but can't do it ourselves "to save our lives". 

Yet that's exactly what singing can do. Researching the healing powers of music generally, and singing in particular, for my novel Songs of Triumphant Love, a story about an opera singer who is losing her voice, I was amazed to learn just how extensive the health benefits of singing really are, both physically and mentally. And recently these effects have been making ever larger waves. 

Part of the rift between people and music-making was the sorry result of the way music was virtually wiped out of many UK schools during the Thatcher years. But now a major drive is in place that aims to introduce singing to every child in the country. In 2004, the government introduced a Music Manifesto to ensure the availability of good musical education — it is now in the control of a voluntary and apolitical "partnership and advocacy" group. In 2007, it initiated a £40 million campaign called Sing Up, a national programme that sought to place singing at the heart of primary schools. Singing, it declares, can "transform children's lives". Perhaps most importantly, the campaign's initiative "Vocal Force" trains teachers to work in singing with primary school children, since their teachers have long lacked the basic musical training they need to bring satisfactory music-making to their classrooms. They also work closely with the excellent Voices Foundation, which has a mission "to enable all children to realise their full potential through a singing-based music curriculum, and to influence national perception of the vital importance of music in education".

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