Ruth Pitt reflects on the power of music and the projects that put it at the heart of recovery.
Opera singers know all about lungs. It was no surprise when news emerged recently that teachers at the English National Opera had, for some months, been helping recovering coronavirus patients to – quite literally – find their voices again. We heard how the breath control skills required of great opera singers could physically soothe sufferers with long-Covid too, helping the body remember what once came naturally and encouraging some really sick people to use their lungs fully again.
The story went viral when the NHS announced the programme would be made available for up to 1000 long-Covid patients across the UK. The Breathe project is a partnership with Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, so the science is sound (forgive the pun). But the physical effects are only part of the story. Participants in this remarkable pilot reported feeling lifted, happier, and back in the world again. One man said he felt “left behind” by life until he started his online classes with one of the ENO’s fantastic singing teachers.
There’s a message here that millions of us will relate to even if opera is the last thing on our bucket list. What we recognise in this heart-warming story is the joy of participation, of focusing on something entirely outside of our normal frame of reference and achieving what we thought was impossible.
The Breathe project shows us that music can make us feel emotionally as well as physically better – as if we didn’t already know that. Could there be any other moment in history when we’ve needed its calming, wonderful presence in our lives more? Music has given us solace and strength while the world struggles to come to terms with change, challenge and loss.
The power of song
Across Yorkshire there are dozens of music projects working similar magic for people struggling with physical and mental health challenges. Even Covid-19 hasn’t stopped the remarkable people who run them, oftentimes truly committed volunteers, from keeping up the good work online.
Step Into Singing is one such example. Led by Opera North in Leeds, it uses music to help people living with chronic pain. Workshops are specially designed in consultation with people who have first-hand experience of persistent pain and there’s input from the clinicians who support them too. One participant described the project’s transformational impact on those who are coping with the pandemic while battling pain: “This has really given us all the opportunity to embrace friendships, fun, and although I’m not a professional singer I personally am definitely in the mood for more.” Opera North is also running its third programme of Couch To Chorus. During the festive period, a remarkable 2,000 people signed up, with 91% reporting that it improved their health and wellbeing.
Elsewhere in Leeds, the Giving Voice Choir, run by Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust, supports those living with neurological conditions. And Slung Low, whom Leeds 2023’s Year of Culture team is working closely with, has created a Singing It Out session designed to improve the mood of singers of all abilities.
There are others, but perhaps the most powerful of all is the Swan Song Project for people dealing with bereavement or living with terminal illness. You don’t have to be a singer or a poet, they say, you just have to be you. Your life and experiences are unique – and your song will be too.
Projects like this are quite literally what the doctor ordered. From the Made With Music early years classes for babies and young children to the Bringing It All Back Home Choir, projects led by musicians are helping people feel better during lockdown and contributing to our overall mental and physical health.
Music is just one example of the mighty power of creativity to positively impact our lives. Dance, painting, poetry and drama have been lifelines for the millions of people – probably you and I included – who have found comfort in arts and culture at this time of huge challenge.
Lockdown may have kept us apart physically but it’s joined us up in other ways. We have painted, written, gardened, sung, and danced. Creativity helps us process grief and pain and find the voice we may have lost throughout all the awfulness of Covid-19. I’ve started singing in my bedroom again like a teenager – I even bought myself some fancy bluetooth headphones. It makes me happy in a world of worry. All I need is a hairbrush for a microphone and I’m flying.
Ruth Pitt is Chair of Leeds 2023.