Back in November the cardiology/respiratory exercise class¹ that I belong to asked if I would be willing to attend a workshop on Singing for Breathing at the Royal Brompton Hospital sometime in January. The aim is to help people with long-term respiratory conditions using breathing techniques commonly found in choirs and other singing groups; feedback from various initiatives around the country is encouraging. Singing for Breathing is a hot topic right now.
It works like this; in order to sing you need to breathe. In order to sing well you need to breathe properly. You need to pay attention to your posture. You need to exercise the muscles that enable singing to happen – from the vocal cords, down through the chest to the diaphragm. Most singers, from soloists to choirs, from the highbrow to the lowbrow, will go through a series of warm-up exercises (posture, physical stretching, breathing exercises and vocal exercises) before they get on to the actual business of making music. Someone somewhere had the bright idea of using these warm-up exercises to help people with long-term respiratory conditions, in an attempt to improve their quality of life, both in terms of their physical and their mental well-being. It was only a matter of time before a group of people with COPD, led through their vocal exercises by a singing teacher, would take the next step and actually sing a song.
The workshop is aimed at people working in different areas of community health who are planning to set up their own singing for breathing sessions; from NHS managers to independent/freelance singing teachers. My role, if I agree to go, would be to get a patient’s eye view, on the basis that I’m an ‘expert patient’. At first I think they’re laying on the flattery with a trowel – expert patient? (Blush) Surely not. You’re too kind.
It turns out that the phrase ‘expert patient’ is commonly used in healthcare and simply means ‘the patient probably knows more about what’s happening to their body and how they feel than we do, so we’ll let them decide what they can or cannot do.’ Ah. So, nothing to do with being a medical/musical genius then.
I came across an item about Singing for Breathing on a BBC News website² a few weeks ago; “When you’ve got COPD, breathing is on your mind all the time. But strangely I don’t notice it when I’m singing. I can hold a note for ages.”
This is someone who struggles to climb the stairs in her home. She cannot walk more than 15 paces without pausing for breath. I can fly up the stairs with no problem – but I can’t hold a note. A few weeks ago my friend Neil (Fat Freddy’s Cat) asked me to sing harmony on a song he’d recorded; ‘will you still love me tomorrow’. I had to record the last word ‘tomorrow’ as three separate syllables and edit them together – I simply could not sing that word in one go. So something amazing must be going on here – how can someone I could easily beat in a race (over 15 paces), hold a note much longer than me?
The more I delve into this the more amazing it gets. I come across Singing for the Brain – where singing is used as therapy for people with Alzheimer’s³ and Dementia. There is also singing therapy for stroke patients; they can’t speak but they can sing.
I see Singing for Breathing as a means of helping me get my singing voice back. Or at least some of it. Possibly. Would I be willing to go? – You just try and stop me.
Which is exactly what happens; something tries to stop me.
A week before the workshop I fall down stairs. I land on my right shoulder and there’s a milli-second pause before I slide across the floor and slam into the wall opposite. This pause stands out in my mind because I do not recall anything about the fall. I’m halfway down the stairs, and then I’m on the floor. But the slide across the floor, I do remember. When I come to my senses I notice an excruciating pain in my right ankle. I can wriggle my toes so assume nothing’s broken. Annie’s out having fun, but I remember an acronym that she instilled in me for situations such as this – RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevate. So I hobble to the medicine cabinet and retrieve an old ankle support and thence to the freezer for a packet of frozen peas. (How many people have an old ankle support in their medicine cabinet?) By the time she gets home I’m lying on the sofa with the bag of peas wrapped tightly round my foot.
I’m extremely lucky, it could have been a lot worse. I manage with crutches for a few days and by the time the workshop comes round I’ve progressed to a walking stick.
The workshop is a revelation. We’re treated to a demonstration by one of the Singing for Breathing groups at the hospital. Led by their charismatic singing teacher, they run through their exercise routine before singing a few songs for us. Songs are carefully chosen – relatively narrow ranges to suit the capabilities of the group – from a Ghanaian lullaby to What a wonderful world this would be (Sam Cooke version, complete with doo-wops). The sound they make is beautiful – surely these people cannot have serious long-term respiratory problem?
In the question and answer session that follows, patients talk about the difference singing has made to their lives; “It’s given me confidence”; “Breathing is so much easier”. They all like the idea of performing – i.e., singing to others outside of the group. One patient though, does not take part in the actual singing. She explains that she doesn’t actually like music and would not listen to it out of choice. She attends the sessions because she feels the warm-up exercises have a beneficial effect on her breathing.
It’s all very inspiring and I’m left with a warm glow and a sense of hope as I make my way home on the train. Now I have to write a report for the exercise class and see if we can set up a Singing for Breathing group in MK. And I have a New Year’s resolution; ‘to hold a note for ages.’ Will you still love tomorrow will do for starters. Watch this space.