By Dr Trish Vella-Burrows
Last week I travelled from my home on the Kent coast in England to spend a couple of inspiring days in Dublin with Director of Move4Parkinson’s (M4P) Margaret Mullarney and her co-workers, volunteers and members. I learnt about M4P’s vision and work and joined in with singing and dance activities that are specifically designed for people affected by Parkinson’s. I have written a more formal report about the impact of the set-dancing classes, reporting the perspectives of the dancers, but below is a blog that expresses my experiences of sharing part of a M4P’s Voices of Hope (VOH) choir rehearsal.
VOH rehearsal: an outsider’s view
The space in which VOH singers meet for two hours every Thursday evening is a bright, spacious suite of rooms in a modern ecumenical church in the suburbs of Dublin. Together with my travelling companion (a representative of the Roger De Haan Charitable Trust) I arrived at the venue half an hour early. We were greeted by Bill, a friendly and congenial church official, who offered us refreshments in the airy cafe area where tea/coffee-making paraphernalia and biscuits were set up ready for the singers to enjoy later in the evening. Bill spoke very positively about M4P’s Director, Margaret Mullarney (‘Mags’), and the ‘great bunch’ of singers that meet at the church each week.
As the singers began to arrive, there was apparent an immediate familiarity and affection between them. They greeted one another with pleasant enthusiasm and my companion and I were embraced into their conversations. Here appeared a comfortable group of people, many of whom emanated a sense of safety and nurture with their peers and in the rehearsal environment. Margaret and choir leader, Jennifer Wetter-Grundulis, were among the first to arrive. There was an ease between them and the singers and conversation buzzed back and forth as they prepared for the evening’s rehearsal. In particular, there were excited discussions about a recent fund-raising Céilidh organised by Margaret and generating over 2,000 euros for M4P, and in which its members sang and danced.
In a very friendly manner, Jennifer and Margaret gathered the 24 singers together in large adjacent room with full length windows, pleasant décor and a circle of chairs – that grew as late-comers’ were welcomed and invited to join the group. The atmosphere was relaxed but with an air of delightful anticipation. The singers appeared varied in their physical abilities. One singer had spoken to me in a hushed, laboured-sounding voice. Another moved slowly, using a wheeled walking frame. Others had clear signs of Parkinson’s, stooping, extremity tremor, slowness of movement, movement-initiation and regulation problems. I wondered at what level Jennifer might need to adjust her usual approach to facilitating a group of community singers and how she might manage her expectations.
Within two minutes, I realised that no compromises were going to be made for the Voices of Hope singers. With almost everyone standing, the singers were invited to engage in vigorous movements to warm up the vocal and respiratory apparatus. Lifting their postures and with incredible volume, the singers whooped and sirened and met the challenge of rapid exercises that covered at least two octaves in pitch and required high levels of vocal and physical agility. Using respiratory muscle-movement-imagery and Dalcrozian-style grand motor movements, which involved increasingly demanding whole-body physical phrasing and pitch-painting, the group Heigh-Ho’d in rich unison and harmonious canons. The energy and sound were incredible! Without exception, everyone in the group appeared engaged and embodied and willing to follow the most energetic of Jennifer’s swiftly demonstrated instructions. The atmosphere was electrifying!
My companion and I were then treated to a rendition of the song ‘Hold On’, which was arranged for the group by Jennifer from the musical Secret Garden. Since learning the song, the poignant and positive words have become the mantra for Voices of Hope singers. The men began the song in tenor/bass octaves and a rich depth of sound. There followed a contrasting ladies section that showed no less fullness of sound. The pitch-accurate harmony sections in the chorus and the final passage rose in volume and the emotion of the words spilled forth. This is not a straightforward song to learn but the choir rose to, and quite definitely met the challenge.
Most of the feedback from singers about their experiences illustrates the choirs importance for them personally. One commented that he could speak louder and for longer since joining the group and he now sings louder that he speaks! Another believed that using the singing techniques taught by Jennifer meant that his speaking voice has improved in stamina over time. A lady singer, who had worked with Margaret on a voluntary basis to launch M4P, said that singing with the choir is hugely uplifting. One member told me that the choir has changed his life. He looked forward to every Thursday and he had rarely missed a rehearsal. He said that any feelings of being unwell or over-tired beforehand soon vanished once he started singing.
It was with great regret that my companion and I had to leave the rehearsal before it finished but this little taster of VOH has inspired us to continue and to develop our own work with people with Parkinson’s in Kent. We have invited Margaret and Jennifer to contribute to the development of written resource guides for healthcare professionals and musicians who may wish to work in this field and to help with practice-based professional development training programmes for experienced musicians.
Congratulations Move4Parkisnon’s! Through Voices of Hope your contribution to the wellbeing of people affected by Parkinson’s is exemplary.
About the Author:
Dr. Trish Vella Burrows
Trish Vella-Burrows is Assistant Director of the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health, Canterbury Christ Church University, Musical Director for the Centre’s ‘Singing for Health’ groups and co-author of ‘Singing and People with Parkinson’s’.