We have all been introduced to singing since we were born and most parents we will be delighted when they hear their child sing a familiar song for the first time and leap to record the moment. It is just as delightful when you hear your grandchild sing and singing to your grandchild even if your singing voice is limited is always appreciated and met with the words ‘again, again’ !
As a schoolgirl I associated singing with warbling, middle aged women with blue rinses and clearly remember having learn to sing ‘Blow the wind Southerly’ by Kathleen Ferrier as an 8 year old ! I was in the school choir because I liked singing not because I had any musical talent! Then there was the evolution of pop music And musical shows and then the doors opened wide and singing for pleasure in the home took on a new light. After all I followed the generation where families used to sing around the piano at home but now it was singing with the radio or TV.
My children have known pop music since an early age and sing-a-longs with the radio on the school run were an important start to the day, amusing many a commuter as they sidled up alongside us on the Great West Road. Now there are an overwhelming number of genres of music, which has led to a wider range of choirs than ever before – gospel, rock, church, barbershop, beatbox to name a few. You can find choirs who do popular chart hits arranged for choir, songs from the shows, or traditional folk music so that singing in choirs has become more popular.
In previous blogs I have alluded to the benefits of singing for patients with dementia and the feel-good effects of singing in helping in depression. However, experts now believe that joining a choir could improve the symptoms of a range of health problems including Parkinson’s, depression and lung disease.
At a conference of the Royal Society for Public Health, Grenville Hancox, professor of music at The Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health, Canterbury, described the changes that can take place through singing together as “extraordinary”.
He told how he and colleagues have witnessed people with respiratory problems learning to breathe more easily, those with depression beating the blues and patients with Parkinson’s disease standing tall and singing loudly.
Prof Hancox is the founder of Skylarks, a new choir for people with Parkinson’s. This disorder of the central nervous system makes normal movements difficult and weakens the voice as the muscles in the face and vocal chords deteriorate. Prof Hancox and his colleague Stephen Clift, the centre’s professor of health education, are undertaking research to find out if choral singing can help with Parkinson’s symptoms, especially those affecting the voice, with choir members undergoing computer-assisted acoustical voice analysis at the start and finish of the study.
Ian MacDonald, voice specialist with the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, reported to have said that it is logical that singing can help in this way. “The vocal cords are muscles,” he says. “By exercising them, you increase tone and restrict tremor, and the voice is less jittery. Singing warms the muscles up – just as athletes warm up theirs.” Being required to stand tall when performing may also improve core strength and benefit these patients.
As Professor Hancox and his colleagues have claimed they have witnessed people with COPD , a debilitating respiratory disease learn to breathe more easily. Around the world an estimated 64 million people are struggling to breathe on a daily basis. The World Health Organization expects COPD to be the third leading cause could potentially help so many people
Sonia Page, the specialist respiratory nurse who is leading the current Singing for Breathing choir at the Royal Brompton Hospital, London says it has helped people with COPD “gain greater control of their breathlessness instead of being at the mercy of it.”
Patients have also reported improved respiratory stamina, reduced impact of chest infections and improvements in sleep apnoea (a condition that causes interrupted breathing during sleep). Dr Nicholas Hopkinson, a consultant chest physician at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London, notes that singing cannot reverse the lung damage caused by COPD, but it can still be of benefit.
COPD patients have difficulty emptying the air from their lungs (known as gas trapping), he says, which is why they suffer from shortness of breath – a problem made worse if they panic and start to hyperventilate.
“Singing may help these patients to improve their posture and learn techniques to help control their breathing. In particular, by breathing out more slowly they give their lungs more time to empty, reducing gas trapping,” says Dr Hopkinson.
The free weekly singing classes held at both Royal Brompton and Harefield hospitals are open to all respiratory at Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust to help them relax and learn new breathing techniques.
The sessions are organised by the arts team at the hospital and are funded by charitable donations. The course leaders hope to enhance existing support for respiratory patients with an enjoyable, informal exercise, that teaches a better understanding of breath control through the use of the voice.
Two of the longest-standing members of the singing groups are Harold Dearing, who has asthma and has had several operations on his heart, and John Turner who has COPD. John has been coming once a week to the Brompton Hospital since 2010 and is passionate about the benefits of singing.
“It helps us feel much, much better. Although singing therapy can’t cure the lung damage caused by acute respiratory conditions such as COPD, the combination of breathing exercises and song can help people with breathing difficulties cope better with their disability.”
“Doing everyday ordinary activities becomes increasingly difficult for people with lung problems,” says John. “I find singing gets your lungs working better, you get out of the house, you meet people and you become a social animal again.”
“Way back in 2002 when I was diagnosed with emphysema, it was suggested I would soon need oxygen. Well I haven’t yet needed it and I think this is very largely due to singing.”
Singing to build confidence
Harold Dearing has been with a singing group for three years. As a teenager, he’d sung in a choir, so when he saw the Harefield course advertised he decided to give it a go.
“Every time I go it’s beneficial. I enjoy the exercises, but it’s especially nice to be together singing. It’s confidence-building. The teachers make it fun and make sure you’re in your comfort zone.”
Angela Reith, a music therapist who runs the sessions at the Harefield hospital says she sees several benefits.
“Some find that by the end of the session they breathe more easily. Others benefit especially on a social level. They have a good time and if you’re happy with yourself you can cope better with your condition,” says Angela.
Singing’s feel-good factor
Joanna Foster who runs the sessions at Royal Brompton agrees about the feel-good factor of singing in a group. “Singing together is not just exercises. It’s fun and it releases endorphins.”
Each of the sessions involves breathing exercises and singing. Starting with gentle upper body stretches, the group then practice making different sounds as they exhale such as sighs and fake laughter.
“It’s the same techniques that actors and professional singers use to warm up their voices and overcome nerves,” says Joanna.
This then leads into singing whole songs, learning them in chunks and eventually – depending on the size of the group – singing rounds and harmonies.
A survey of 500 patients taking part in the singing workshops at Royal Brompton and Harefield found that 70% felt markedly physically better after the workshops.
Joining a choir is by no means a conventional solution for such a serious illness.
The research team from Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent felt they had good reason to investigate the effects on COPD and singing and showed that the benefits are real. Dr Ian Morrison, a senior research fellow and one of the project’s authors, said: “Lung function improved dramatically, particularly after about five months, once people had got used to what they were doing and changed their breathing habits.
It has been observed that people with breathing problems tend to develop a lot of anxiety about the very process of inhaling. The tendency is to do ‘gaspy’ breathing so they’re taking short little breaths. This actually fills up the lungs without clearing them, making it even more difficult to breathe. Due to their obstructed airways, many people with COPD already find emptying their lungs a challenge.Gasping makes the problem worse and can, in the most serious cases, lead to a build-up of carbon dioxide in the blood, which can result in respiratory failure.
In contrast, the techniques used in singing encourage people to breathe in a much deeper, more controlled manner.The whole musculature around the lungs, throat and the upper chest improve with time,” says Dr Morrison. They use what they have much better and you really see a difference in the skill of actually breathing.”
To test its effects, Morrison and his colleagues asked over 100 COPD patients – ranging from mild to severely affected – to attend weekly singing sessions over a 12-month period.They measured their lung capacity with a device known as a spirometer – which looks a bit like a giant breathalyser – and asked participants to fill in a questionnaire to find out on a qualitative level how they were feeling. One of the tests involved measuring how much air a person could force out in a rapid puff. ( Peak Flow Meter)
On average the people in our study had 50% of expected lung function,” said Prof Stephen Clift, the study’s lead author. “That means about 1.5 litres of air in a one second puff. For healthy lungs, we would expect something more like 3 litres.” Without treatment, people with COPD can expect to see the size of their puff decrease by around 40ml a year.The very best the team had hoped for was that after singing regularly for one year, the size of that puff would stay the same.
“Instead we got an increase of 30ml,” says Prof Clift.
“Although the changes are small, the progressive nature of COPD means that any loss of function year-on-year is going to be more significant for them.
“In our study, we not only appeared to halt the decline but people showed a small improvement.”
Dr Morrison added: “There’s also the social and psychological side, because any long term condition is isolating.
A recent Swedish study published in the journal Integrative Physiological and Behavioural Science suggested that it not only increases oxygen levels in the blood but triggers the release of “happy” hormones such as oxytocin, which is thought to help lower stress levels and blood pressure.
Singing has all the benefits mentioned so far and can also be very helpful in improving speech which has become slurred and unclear as a result of Parkinson’s. These same breathing exercises can prevent decline and marginally improve lung function in serious lung disease.
Breathing exercises and vocal techniques used when singing can help with:
- sustaining the voice
- increasing and controlling volume
- varying pitch and expression
- improving diction
- controlling vocal speed
- increasing the fluidity of diction
- improving Posture
Not surprisingly there are a growing number of informal singing groups for people with Parkinson’s or other illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s. The opportunity to work on vocal and breathing techniques in an informal setting with people who share similar difficulties can be a valuable social activity and can help with self-confidence and overcoming Depression. And you don’t generally need to be able to sing to participate because such groups are not usually choirs and most do not give performances.
Typical singing activities which can help with improving posture, breath work and diction include:
- taking your voice ‘for a walk’ up and down in pitch
- lifting the tongue to the roof of the mouth
- practicing trills (rapid alternation between two adjacent notes of a scale) with lip and tongue
- making different types of sighs
- echoing tunes
- singing in rounds (one voice starts and others join in one after another until all are singing different parts of the same song at the same time)
- experimenting with a variety of pitch, pace and mood in songs.
Singing techniques have also been used to aid fluidity of speech and combat stuttering: Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT) uses song phrases to retrieve speech when this has been lost or weakened. Group singing can give a social outlet and boost self-confidence in people who tend to withdraw socially due to slurred speech and weakening articulation
Prof Clift and Prof Hancox believe the health benefits of belonging to a choir, for some chronic conditions will become indisputable. “There are examples of arts on prescription and gym on prescription,” argues Prof Hancox. “How about singing on prescription, too?”
If after reading this you want to have singing lessons or join a choir try your local church, community centre or school. I have listed some ideas below of various choirs in and around Ealing.
Ealing Choral Society,
This is one of London’s best choirs: they are an amateur choir, performing with world-class orchestras and soloists in Ealing, as well as Central London and occasionally abroad.
Questors Theatre Choir
And for more information about joining, read the Why not sing with us? section.
Contact us here or phone 020 8816 7734 / 07802 720333
We are a 60-strong mixed voice choir based in West London, England, and affiliated to Questors Theatre.
Ealing Common Choir
This was formerly Ealing Common Choir. Singers are welcome and ideally can read music and sight-read a simple line. You’ve probably sung on and off all your life. Contact us or just come along to a rehearsal on a Thursdays at St Matthews Church, Ealing Common. Further details:-
Singology is a vocal coaching company setup by Mark De-Lisser in 2000 to provide singing opportunities and tuition to people of all ages. With a strong tradition of choral singing, Singology has now launched ‘Singology Choirs’ to encourage more and more people to get involved in community singing, which has been proven to increase confidence, social cohesion and can also be used as a diversionary activity for young people in the community.
Monday Ealing 7:30pm – 9:30pm Ealing Town Hall, W5 2BY 12th Jan – 23rd Mar
Singology choirs throughout London are joining together to sing at the Royal Festival Hall.
The Ealing Rock Choir
Grange Primary School,
Church Gardens, Ealing, London, W5 4HN
The Ealing Rock Choir is led by singer/pianist Christina Clark. We have a great year lined up and we would like to invite you to join our choir and take part in the local Ealing and wider London community. We are the Ealing rehearsal of the trailblazing Rock Choir. We often team up with the other local London choirs to perform in much bigger choral groups. These inspirational moments are unique to the Rock Choir experience. It’s unbelievable and you can still join the choir. Just like a gym class or amateur dramatic society, your Rock Choir rehearsal provides an escape from everyday life. One evening a week during term time, your time is completely your own, to do nothing but sing your heart out with friends whilst enjoying our trailblazing formula of fun, friendship and feel-good music. Book a FREE singing taster session at the Ealing Rock Choir and see for yourself!
There’s no pressure to perform if you don’t want to – it’s all about having fun and enjoying some well-deserved ‘me time’. – See more at: http://www.rockchoir.com
The Ealing Rock Choir singing at the Minack theatre, Cornwall. This is a fascinating outdoor theatre with an intriguing story.
The Addison Singers comprises two classical choirs – an auditioned Chamber Choir and larger non-auditioned Oratorio Choir; and two jazz choirs – an auditioned Jazz Ensemble and a larger non-auditioned all-female Jazz Choir. It also offers three different singing classes to meet the needs of beginners, intermediate and the more competent, experienced singer.
Or if or if all else fails try some Kareoke or sing- a – long with the TV or radio