Opera singers know all about lungs. No surprise, then, that when it recently emerged 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 required of great opera singers could physically soothe sufferers with long-covid too, helping the lungs remember what had once come naturally and encouraging some really sick people to use their lungs to the full again.
The story went viral when the NHS announced the programme was being 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, so to speak. But the physical effects are only part of the story. Participants in this remarkable pilot reported feeling happier, lifted up, back in the world again. One man said he had 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. The rewards of participation, of focusing on something entirely outside our normal frame of reference, of achieving what we thought was impossible.
What the Breathe project shows us, as if we didn’t know it already, is that music can make us feel emotionally as well as physically better. Could there be any other moment in history when we’ve needed its calming, wonderful presence in our lives more keenly, as the whole world struggles to come to terms with so much change, challenge and loss?
Across Yorkshire there are dozens of music projects that work similar magic for people struggling with physical and mental health challenges and even covid hasn’t stopped them keeping up the good work online.
Step Into Singing uses music to help people living with constant pain, led by our very own Opera North. The Giving Voice Choir supports those living with neurological conditions and their carers.
There are others, but perhaps the most emotionally powerful of all is the Swan Song Project, for people living with terminal illness or dealing with bereavement. 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 so will be your song.
Lockdown may have kept us apart physically but it’s joined us up in other ways. We have painted, written, gardened, sung, danced and a million other things. Creativity helps us process grief and pain and find the voice we may have lost. I’ve started singing again, in my bedroom, like a teenager – even bought some Bluetooth headphones. It makes me happy in a world of worry. All I need is a hairbrush for a microphone and I’m flying.