When I told someone that I would be writing about singing, music and Parkinson’s Disease, she asked: “But why would music help Parkinson’s?” And her response struck me, because it’s true that the part music can play in many illnesses is far less well known than, say, its impact on dementia. Through recent years so many people and organizations have shared music’s power to revive memory and to reach people who struggle to communicate as their dementia progresses. But there are many other conditions where music and singing can prove beneficial: like Parkinson’s Disease.
I recently came across Sing To Beat Parkinson’s (www.singtobeat.co.uk) which was founded three years ago. Although quite recent as an organisation, it draws together a network of People With Parkinson’s (PWP) choirs, the first of which began in Kent in 2010, overseen by the Canterbury Cantata Trust. Not only have the choirs expanded across the UK, the model has also been taken up overseas.
While focusing on running choirs, Sing To Beat Parkinson’s is also committed to contributing to research to help understand how and why music and singing benefit people who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Its involvement in a 2017 survey found that singing in the choirs boosted emotional wellbeing while also easing anxiety and depression. Taking part was also found to reduce the stigma which can still surround illnesses like Parkinson’s Disease. More recently, Sing To Beat Parkinson’s is partnering with the Sidney de Haan Research Centre on research into singing’s impact on people living under lockdown.
It is obviously an irony that at a time like lockdown when so many people have needed music’s positive impacts more than ever before, most choirs have now been unable to gather for months. Sing To Beat Parkinson’s runs The Isolation Choir, which has shared songs regularly on You Tube. Throughout the last nine months, music and singing online truly have come alive.
A striking feature of music and singing’s impact on different illnesses is that it is not limited to emotional wellbeing alone (important although that is) but also contributes to physical health. Vocal strength can become an issue for people living with Parkinson’s, as their voices fade, but singing has been found to help strengthen their voices. This reminded me of singing’s power to boost lung capacity as well, so that ENO (English National Opera) and Imperial College London are trialling singing projects for people recovering from coron. These aim to ease breathlessness through singing.
I know that dance is also helpful for people with Parkinson’s, either to improve balance and flexibility or boost wellbeing and draw people together. Music will obviously have a part to play in dance’s role here too.
Making music can be affirming, joyful, hopeful, unifying and reassuring. These impacts alone demonstrate how worthwhile it is to explore ways in which music and song might help other illnesses, and experimenting to see how people respond. Some will have sung or played music or years before they became ill, so that an opportunity to go on music making is an important way for them to feel they are still themselves. For others, music making might be a totally new and so a positive new opportunity opened up be or amidst the horrors of illness. So Parkinson’s Disease is one of many illnesses where music and song have enormous scope to contribute. Would you like to share how they have helped you, or how you have seen them help others? To share any responses or thoughts, it would be great if you could post on Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002