Arts News!

Scottish opera Breath Cycle workshops – a personal experience

Earlier this year I received an unusual press release from Scottish Opera – instead of news of a forthcoming production, this dropped into my inbox:

further SESSIONS OF SCOTTISH OPERA’S ONLINE PROJECT BREATH CYCLE, for people SUFFERING FROM LONG COVID AND OTHER breathing difficulties, BEGIN this month

as a classically trained singer who for various reasons was currently unable to sing and last year was diagnosed with blood clots in my lungs which for some months seriously affected my breathing, I thought I’d investigate…

Breath Cycle began as a partnership between Scottish Opera and Glasgow’s Gartnavel General Hospital Cystic Fibrosis Service to explore whether learning classical singing techniques, including breath control, could improve the wellbeing of cystic fibrosis patients. The materials were created as part of a study into how singing techniques, including breathing exercises could replicate the effects of conventional physiotherapy to increase lung function.  

The new Breath Cycle workshops were very successful in their first term, with participants reporting improvement in a range of areas, such as anxiety, loneliness and confidence in addition to benefits to their physical health. One said they could ‘already tell (Breath Cycle) will be of great support’ to them, with another adding the online workshops ‘brightened up’ their week.

Jane Davidson, Scottish Opera’s Director of Outreach and Education said: ‘We’re delighted to be able to offer the programme for a second term starting in January. The Breath Cycle workshops have proven to be a perfect way for our participants, all of whom suffer from Long Covid or other long term lung conditions, to take a moment for their own wellbeing each week.

Gordon MacGregor, Respiratory Consultant at the Department of Respiratory Medicine of Queen Elizabeth University Hospital said: ‘Breath Cycle has been a fantastic project which was first launched in 2013 for people with Cystic Fibrosis. These new sessions provide a platform to work with patients with a range of lung conditions which allows them to exercise their lungs while having fun. This is absolutely key as it keeps them engaged and active in their lung health programme – it’s easy to take part and it’s rewarding.

‘We know how important lung health is to our overall wellbeing, and particularly now, where we’re seeing new patients who may be suffering from breathing issues related to Long Covid, so any treatment which can help address that and offers patients a treatment plan they can stick to, is a positive step.’

So – how was it for me?  I wasn’t able to attend the first workshop, so I approached the second one with great trepidation, afraid both that I’d be unable to do anything and that in the not-doing I’d make a complete fool of myself.

I needn’t have worried!  Regular and frequent use of Zoom meant that I was perfectly comfortable with joining the workshops from a tech point of view, and the welcome and encouragement from the group leaders when I expressed my fears meant that I was able to relax and explore what I and my voice might be able to do.  It also helped that the participants were all muted, so whatever noises we made weren’t shared with the rest of the class!

Each week’s session began with a gentle physical warm-up, for which you could sit or stand – or on one memorable occasion, do the whole thing lying on the floor!  This was followed by a gentle vocal warm up – our favourite one being the Fun Fruit and Vegetable Warm-up – and an introduction to the week’s song.  It didn’t matter if you’d never heard the song before: it was taught line by line, with the sheet music shared on the screen if you were able to read the notes [or just followed their ups and downs].  It was a joy to encounter both familiar and new songs – I particularly loved the Eriskay Love Lilt which I learned in school aeons ago, and The Rose – new to me, but still lingering: some say love, it is a river/ that drowns the tender reed: while Daniela’s fabulous tango milonga sentimental was a joy to listen to [but not attempt to sing!].

As I’ve said, no-one else could hear what noise you were making, and we were encouraged to report our experience using the chat function.  Some people found the high notes hard, others [like me] simply failed to sing low notes: the workshop leaders were very good at responding to the chat comments and engaging with individuals if they had a specific problem which others were likely to share.  Some weeks we went into breakout rooms with individual leaders, which meant it was easier for some of us to share personal difficulties and have possible approaches suggested to us. 

All the time we were encouraged to do what we could, and not do anything that either hurt or didn’t work for us.  I think the range of singing experience among us was very wide, but the language used to describe the exercises was designed to ensure that no-one would feel left out or be unable to understand what we were being asked to do.  It was fascinating to find that one leader’s favourite exercise was another’s nightmare – one size truly doesn’t fit all, especially when it comes to singing!

We were continually reminded to take a break if we needed to – not everyone can sustain an hour even of gentle exercise – and each week also contained an ‘everyone’ break, during which one of the leaders would sing or play something gentle: so we got to hear them as performers as well as teachers.  The sessions would always end with a gentle ‘winding down’ meditation, after which those who wished to could stay on to chat, give feedback, or ask questions.

The workshop leaders were friendly, supportive and encouraging, and the feedback from participants was universally positive.   A community feeling grew up among those of us who took part ‘live’ – and I gather that a sizeable number of people who couldn’t join us worked with the recordings of the sessions, the links for which were sent out each week after the class.  The final class was both rejoicing and sad – celebrating everything we’d each achieved, unilaterally thanking the workshop leaders for the astounding difference the workshops had made to our lives, and desolated to think that lunchtime on Wednesday would no longer be the fun high spot of our week. 

My personal experience was definitely life-changing.  Having struggled for years with a voice that used to be pretty damn good and now was a wreck which I knew would take more time and energy than I possessed to get back into anything like reasonable nick, I discovered that I could sing, and enjoy singing – not particularly well by my standards, but sing without having to struggle to make anything come out, or contend with huge [and distressing] gaps in the voice.  Wearing my Quaker hat, I took part in a number of ecumenical events and, for the first time in years, was able to join in the hymns without stressing about it.  I’ve even found myself singing quietly to myself around the house, something I’ve not done for years.  I now know that, should I want to take this further and get back into singing in some way or other, I have the tools to help myself make a start.

A parallel song-writing course ran alongside Breath Cycle, and in our final session some of their work was sung to us.  Linda’s song, describing a week in the life of her and her voice, sang about the pains and pleasures of trying to get the voice back, whole, again. At the end of her week my laugh is back: hallo voice, I’ve missed you – did you miss me too?  Linda spoke for so many of us with her song.  Thank you so much, Scottish Opera and Breath Cycle – you’ve changed so many people’s lives for the better.

Another Breath Cycle series begins this month, and hopefully more will follow.  If you have problems with your breathing, for whatever reason, do get in touch with Scottish Opera.  You don’t have to be a singer or read music, you just need to want to help yourself get a bit healthier – and you’ll have great fun too!

Mary Woodward

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