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Don’t stop the music

Better Breathing Choir (safely) sings through the pandemic

By Rebecca Cohoe

When COVID-19 public health measures identified choirs as a higher risk activity, singer Helen McDermott understood the need to make changes.

Choir practice, Zoom-style!
Photo: Submitted

Ands a member of the Better Breathing Choir, an ensemble that focuses on the health benefits of choral music for people with respiratory issues, she knew that she and her choir mates would need to be particularly careful.

“My concern for the health of the members of the choir, and my own, far outweighed any disappointment that I initially felt,” she said.

Public engagement funding

In-person rehearsals out of the question, the choir’s organizers, based in the School of Music, moved quickly to adapt.

They submitted a successful application to the Office of Public Engagement’s COVID-19 Quick Start Fund, and began working on a plan to move the choir online.

“Participating in a choir that caters to those living with lung disease/breathing issues has a host of physical health and mental health benefits,” said Rachelle Ryan, a physiotherapist with Eastern Health, and a public partner of the choir.

“During a pandemic, people are isolated and less likely to be participating in healthy living activities, which makes it even more important to keep a group like the choir going.”

Dr. Jane Gosine, the choir’s director and a professor in the School of Music with a cross-appointment in community health and humanities in the Faculty of Medicine, says that working with Ms. Ryan enabled them to build well-designed exercises into the choir sessions that work well in an online setting.

“With funding from the Office of Public Engagement, we are expanding on this to collaborate with an occupational therapist with training in dance therapy, Hilary Walsh, to increase the amount of gentle exercise used during the sessions and through videos.”

Social prescribing

Aside from the strictly physical benefits of singing, evidence shows that group singing can be beneficial to a person’s emotional, social and physical well-being.

The concept of a doctor prescribing community-based, non-clinical activities to patients is called social prescribing and can be linked to various types of artistic activities, including dance, visual arts and, of course, singing. In the U.K., for example, physicians can prescribe singing to support patients’ health.

“Once I got familiar with the process, I really enjoyed it.” — Helen McDermott

Still, moving the choir online did present some challenges. There was the issue of access to technology and the learning curve associated with using the web-conference platform Zoom.

It was also a different experience to be singing alone into the computer, rather than in a room of friends – although, since a number of friends, family members and supporters also participate in the choir, some members had another voice or two in the room. Ms. McDermott says at first it felt “a little strange” sitting at her computer singing, especially as members mute themselves and cannot hear each other sing.

“However, once I got familiar with the process, I really enjoyed it,” she said.

There has also been a number of benefits to the move online.

“We’re able to include people who aren’t in the city and have the option to run sessions during the winter when bad weather might have otherwise forced us to cancel,” said Ms. Ryan. “We have also started improving our webpage to share more resources for use at home, which is great.”

‘Brightened my days’

For Grace Rose, a music student and choir facilitator, continuing the work with the choir has had significant personal benefits.

School of Music student and choir facilitator Grace Rose says she gets as much out of the choir as she puts in.
Photo: Submitted

Along with singing with the choir and leading songs and exercises, she created a number of videos for members to use during the pandemic, but notes that she gets as much out of the experience as she is putting in.

“The choir has definitely brightened my days during the pandemic,” she said. “I love sharing music, even if it is at a distance. It is so nice to know that I am able to provide some sense of normal to the choir members’ lives with the music videos and online sessions.”

For more information about publicly engaged projects that are helping Newfoundland and Labrador respond to the pandemic, please check out the COVID-19 Quick Start Fund awardees and other funding opportunities available through the Office of Public Engagement.

For more information about the Better Breathing Choir, please see the website or contact choir leader Dr. Jane Gosine.

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