Until I started teaching, I didn’t ask myself this question. My background is full of music – my mum is a piano teacher and as a family there was always music in the house. I loved singing from a very young age, from my start as a church choirboy, then a treble in the Welsh National Opera chorus, the South Glamorgan Youth Choir, Welsh College of Music and then the Royal Academy. There was never any question about what I wanted to do as a career and I have been so lucky that this went as planned. I have been able to work for the past thirty years in a huge variety of places and with amazing people doing what I love without really thinking about anything more than how much I enjoyed it.
Then ten years ago, I started teaching, and one of my first students was a woman about the same age as me who had been told by her doctor to try singing lessons as an alternative to anti-depressants. Her life could not be more different to mine. She had been in an abusive relationship, and as a result of this her children had been taken into care. When she and I met, she was at rock bottom. She had managed to extract herself from the abusive relationship, but was fighting to get her children back. For one hour every week, we worked together on her voice, and mostly, she managed to put everything else to one side while she concentrated on being able to sing the pop songs that she loved. Over the weeks, her confidence grew and eventually she joined a choir where she found new friends and expanded her social circle. She stopped the lessons shortly after, and I don’t know if she was successful getting her kids back. But I do know that singing lessons helped her in ways that I hadn’t imagined before. So my interest in singing as a positive aid to mental and physical well being began.
Since then, I have looked into this more and more, and discovered so much about the benefits of singing for both mental and physical health. The breath control required to sing can help with lung conditions including COPD and asthma. Learning correct singing technique helps to strengthen the muscles you use when you breathe, allowing you to breathe more slowly and deeply. This in turn aids relaxation and helps to stop the feeling of panic that breathlessness can cause. It also increases lung capacity and improves posture. You can read much more about the benefits of singing to lung health on the British Lung Foundation website.
Canterbury Christ Church University has conducted a number of studies into the benefits of singing for people with lung conditions, and also with Parkinsons, mental health issues and dementia. One section of the report into how singing helps people with dementia says this: Two of the most functional human needs are the capacity to understand and to be understood. Participation in singing social groups is arguably accessible to everybody regardless of their understanding of the world. Accessing tunes, singing, humming familiar songs, swaying or moving rhythmically and a comforting connection with the musical tonic appears to be independent of higher cognitive function. I love the idea that singing can provide a link for dementia sufferers to other people, when other forms of communication no longer work. One choir that is really putting this into practise is in my home town of Cardiff. The Forget Me Not Chorus is run by Kate Woolveridge. She and I were in the South Glamorgan Youth choir and the Royal Academy together. The charity runs choirs for people with dementia and their carers and is doing amazing work providing joy to people when joy is sometimes hard to find.
A study conducted by the Royal College of Music in 2016 demonstrated the benefits of singing in a choir to cancer patients. ‘Many people affected by cancer can experience psychological difficulties such as stress, anxiety and depression’ said Dr Daisy Fancourt, co-author of the research and Research Associate at the Centre for Performance Science, a partnership between the RCM and Imperial College London. ‘Research has demonstrated that these can suppress immune activity at a time when patients need as much support as they can get from their immune system. An activity as simple as singing could reduce some of this stress-induced suppression, helping to improve wellbeing and quality of life amongst patients.’
Many of my students sing in choral societies and church choirs, and study with me to improve their confidence and nail the details of whatever piece they are working on. All of them love the social side of singing in a choir, and gain so much from the shared experience of singing in a group. Having been a member of the English National Opera for the past 20 years, this is something I can fully understand. There is something very unique about the experience of creating music with a group of people. It is incredibly uplifting. And of course, with the attention given to choral singing by people like Gareth Malone, it is becoming more and more popular.
And you don’t need to have a medical condition to appreciate the benefits of breath control. Breathing properly is so fundamental to everyday life, and yet it is so easy to forget how to do it. When you are in a stressful situation, knowing how to stay in control of your breath will help you cope with whatever life is throwing at you on that particular day. And anyone that has to make presentations as part of their job will always benefit from doing a few breathing exercises before getting up on the podium.
So whatever your reason for wanting to sing, allow yourself an hour a week that is all yours – an opportunity to forget everything else and sing whatever you enjoy. You’ll have a great time, and it can only be good for your health!