Tag Archives: music

How to use music to fine tune your child for school

Chelsea Harry, University of the Sunshine Coast
This article was first published in The Conversation 
http://theconversation.com

Can music actually make us smarter? Research suggests that from as early as 16 weeks of pregnancy, when auditory function is forming, babies begin their musical development. Their early adaptive exposure to sounds, including those familiar sounds of parents’ voices, enhance extraordinary processing skills.

Neuroscience teaches us that a child’s brain is plastic. By this, we mean it is malleable and has the ability to change. The first year of life, more than any other year, will see the most rapid change in brain size and function as all the sensory receptors activate. Intriguingly, neuro-imaging shows that music alone turns on large sectors of a child’s brain, opening crucial neural pathways that will become the highways and byways for every piece of information the process.

We’d all love to think our children will grow up intelligent, blissfully free from academic struggle. Truth is, the learning journey is speckled with challenges, and each child will have a unique intelligence and learner disposition. One thing we know is that parental involvement in cognitive stimulation from the earliest years will help form solid foundations that underpin a more successful schooling journey.

So, what can parents do to prepare young learners for school?

Sing like no one’s listening

Singing nursery rhymes to your child, however old fashioned you may think it is, will get them off to a flying start. Children become particularly responsive because reciprocal communication occurs as they begin to mimic you – pre-empting certain sounds, tones or words that they recognise. Using pitch and rhythm in the rhymes and lullabies we introduce to our children will begin to create neural stimulation that develops the brain’s auditory cortex, transforming their ability to communicate.

Bang on those pots and pans

While it may fray the nerves, banging on the pots and pans is a fantastic way to improve spatial reasoning. With background music blaring, children first develop the coordination required to hit the metallic targets, and as their sensory cortex develops, they begin to keep in time. Research shows that spatial reasoning, along with a sense of beat and rhythm (which invariably includes an aural and tactile sense of measure and counting) will enhance mathematical abilities.

Join a children’s music group

Early childhood music-based playgroups offer a unique learning context for children. The songs and activities employ beat patterns, movement, repeated chorus lines and echo singing to engage with young participants. The cerebellum at the base of our brains is responsible for movement and balance, and interestingly, is where emotional reactions to music form. Universally, early childhood educators use rhyme and song to teach children how language is constructed, and with good reason. Movement, foot tapping and dancing to a beat are also good ways of developing the brain’s motor cortex.

The ‘Mozart Effect’

There is a popular hypothesis that listening to Mozart makes you smarter. The “Mozart Effect” refers primarily to a landmark study in 1993, where participants listening to Mozart’s music (rather than to relaxation music or silence) achieved higher spatial-temporal results. Importantly, spatial-temporal reasoning is crucially active when children are performing science and maths tasks. Listening to music in any capacity induces endorphin production in the brain, causing improvement in mood and creative problem solving.

Learn an instrument

Many parents wonder when a child should start learning their first musical instrument. Importantly, instrumental tuition is not about producing the next Mozart or Delta Goodrem. Music lessons, for even the briefest of periods, are enjoyable and establish a life-long skill. It has also been noted that musicians’ brains develop a thickened pre-frontal cortex – their brains are actually bigger. And this is the area of the brain most crucially involved in memory. One thing researchers and music educators endorse is the amazing impact it has on the development of executive functions such as working memory, attention span and cognition.

Many schools are putting research into practice, and Queensland is leading the way with music taught in 87% of schools. Immersion music programs, where all students learn an instrument for a one-year minimum, have become commonplace. The results speak for themselves.

Psychologists from a Californian University conducted research on pre-school aged children, and proved that those who had weekly keyboard lessons improved their spatial-temporal skills 34% more than those who didn’t. The benefits did not stop there. Children developed fine motor skills, reading, auditory recognition, resilience, and increased their memory capacity. All of these benefits of instrumental tuition bode well for the classroom journey ahead.The Conversation

Chelsea Harry

Chelsea Harry is an Academic Researcher and Music Educator, University of the Sunshine Coast. Currently completing a Masters in Research with USC, Chelsea is a professional Musician and Classroom Educator of 20 years experience. 
Her research follows the journey of 6-8 year olds and the impact of instrumental music tuition on the brain and executive functions.

Chelsea also works as a conductor, cellist, pianist, music educator, musical director, primary classroom teacher and mum!

Read the original article here.

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The real reason dinosaurs became extinct (& some neurological impacts of music-making)

Dinosaurs couldn’t sing. Perhaps their demise had nothing to do with earth impacting asteroids or the frustration of tiny arms after all and was instead triggered by their physical inability to sing. Now, I’m no scientist but…

Findings from a report published last year suggest the Jurassic age was filled with awkward silences punctuated only by squawks, leaf munching and worse. Without the option to experience the joy of shared breathing patterns, matched heartbeats or the release of life affirming endorphins catalysed by singing together, life in the days of the dinosaurs must have been bleak. Imagine having no way to celebrate the break of a new day or the setting of an evening sun. Imagine a world without song.

The oldest, complete example of a found fossilised syrinx belonged to a species of ancient bird related to the ducks and geese of today called Vegavis iaai, which lived during the Cretaceous period of the Mesozoic Era between 66-69 million years ago.

The specimen was dug up on Vega Island in Antartica by a team from the Argentine Antarctic Institute, led by Julia Clarke, a paleontologist at The University of Texas.  Twenty five years later, upon subsequent re-examination in 2013, Clarke and her team discovered the fossilised bird was found to contain a complete syrinx, the avian equivalent of a human larynx or ‘voice box’.

The team spent the next two years searching records of previous Jurassic finds to establish whether earlier examples of a syrinx existed. Their research came to nothing, with all other examples of fossilised syrinxes occurring in species of birds that evolved long after the extinction of land-based dinosaurs.

This discovery was important as it offered insight into the Jurassic soundscape: Without a syrinx, those poor old land lubbin’ dinosaurs would have been incapable of song:

“To speculate wildly, we might have closed-mouth booms more similar to crocodilians in large-bodied dinosaurs like  T. rex…..said Clarke.”

If you’re thinking okay, enough about dinosaurs already, what does all this have to do with community music? Well, for the sake of this blog, what’s relevant was a subsequent observation of Clarke and her team:

“…the evolution of vocal behaviour can provide insights into other anatomical features… such as the development of bigger brains.”

Aha, now this is more like it! Jumping from the Jurassic age into the 21st century, a study led by Dr Vanessa Sluming from the University of Liverpool and published in 2002 of a British Symphony Orchestra found that musicians exhibited larger volumes of grey matter in Broca’s area, the part of our brains responsible for language and verbal working memory, and this volume varied depending on how many years they’d been playing their instrument.

“Although this area declines with age, orchestral players kept more of their brain cells than non-players, as they aged.” Dr Vanessa Sluming

Furthermore, it’s well documented that singing and learning songs builds neurological pathways, and also boosts levels of acetylcholine in the brain, an organic chemical which functions as a neurotransmitter sending messages through the brain and playing a highly important role in memory retention.

In committing new material to memory and then drawing on that in the context of our singing and music making, we improve our capacity to recall and remember.

Valuable for all this and more, community music making provides the opportunity to simply celebrate being alive. We should all keep learning and singing new songs and playing new tunes, recalling favourites from the archives along the way and our long term mental health and well-being will reap the rewards. And we should all be grateful not to have been born a dinosaur.

Article by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria

Further reading:

Music improves brain power – in some performers
https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/sep/12/health.research

Do musicians have bigger brains?
https://www.braintraining101.com/do-musicians-have-bigger-brains/

Boost your memory and your brain by singing
https://www.lifehacker.com.au/2013/08/boost-your-brain-and-memory-by-singing/

And further reading on dinosaurs…

Dinosaurs couldn’t sing
https://scienceblog.com/488716/dinosaurs-couldnt-sing/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+scienceblogrssfeed+%28ScienceBlog.com%29

Fossil evidence of the avian vocal organ from the Mesozoic https://www.nature.com/articles/nature19852.epdf?referrer_access_token=N4n-vV1ZFQa_2ZrBCVDDqNRgN0jAjWel9jnR3ZoTv0POdDZwZ05Pa-IKumwU5iqFPqb9J0RCiSbNodY9t6fsIlllkLV3NV3ydjAEF95r56mcI_GYrpf2Qnn5rc1s0gl6sKaUASwdqhDR20W53nuCUV_E8jqkJBnLnuEms1KFl1PFBulm

 

Weaving homespun tunes into the fabric of daily family life

“… the fish in the river, the clouds in the sky,
the wattles and gum trees that grow up so high
the kookaburra singing so gaily and free
good morning to you and good morning to me…”

                                                 from the Good Morning song* by Woody Clark

Woody Clark dreams of a world where families find time to make music as they go about their lives together. Over the past fifteen years or more, Woody has been working to build a catalogue of songs and resources available to parents and carers to turn this vision into reality and help integrate the rich experience of intergenerational singing and playing into the familial tapestry of homes and lives across Australia.

For Woody, the value is in ‘creating music rather than consuming it’ and, where possible, within a familiar setting involving children, parents or carers, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins…

“Make music relevant and engaging and something that’s just part of the fabric of the household rather than something external to that, find the means to utilise it in your life in a way that will bring expression and joy, or whatever that might be.”

Woody’s own three kids have collaborated with him on musical projects, co-written songs for his album, and in recent years toured as part of the family band ‘Woody’s World’. This includes his parents, folk singer-songwriters Kate Townsend and Dave Clark. Woody’s World played at many regional festivals and events in 2016, including Adelaide Festival Centre, Melbourne Cabaret Festival and Ukulele Festivals, Pt Fairy Folk Festival and Mt Beauty Music Festival.

Woody remembers feeling surprised by the excitement of former classmates in recalling the novelty of a school teacher who would sing and play guitar to them during art classes. For Woody who grew up in a household where music-making was a normal and assumed part of daily life, this occurrence was familiar and common to him. He realised as an adult, the experience at school had evaporated from his memory as something unremarkable tends to.

Years later as a father and classroom teacher himself, Woody is using his experience and knowledge as a songwriter and musician to uphold the tradition set by his own background, advocating for the benefits and joys of the style of unplugged family music-making he’s enjoyed in his own life.

Woody’s tips for anyone who’s keen to encourage kids to make music are:

  • Model the behaviour and expose your kids to live music-making.
  • Have a guitar or ukulele sitting on the couch and build music into your day, for example sing a morning song*, or sing a song before you eat your food, or a bedtime song.
  • Make it fun! A lot of music education is serious and focuses on the classical side, so if you can show kids that learning and making music can be really fun and engaging too, you’re half way there.

“I’m not putting pressure on my kids to be musicians but if when they leave home, they can play instruments, have some appreciation of the language of music, it’s accessible for them and they can express themselves, then I’ll feel I’ve done my job in that regard.”

As a way to facilitate integrated music-making in the home, Woody runs 8 week ukulele classes teaching kids aged from 5-12 years and their grandparents, parents or guardians, to play the instrument together. In doing so, Woody’s observed the positive benefits and effects that intergenerational learning brings:

“The parents who model the behaviour, doing weekly practise with their kids really upskill in the ukulele, they come back the next week and they’re both excited; they can play that new chord or they can do the new strumming technique. By the end of the 8 weeks instead of the uke being a foreign object that they are wondering how to hold and tune, they are learning to speak that language.”

Next year Woody will take this course online, making it available as a learning resource for kids, parents and carers, everywhere. “It’ll be a kind of crash course in how to learn the basics and there’ll also be an opportunity to play along with Woody’s World during our live shows.” The course will provide footage recorded by Woody for all L-plate ukers to strum along to for practise in their own time. Woody describes it as ‘an integrated project, and a preparatory engagement experience.’

Uke 5Woody has been working towards this point for a long time having coordinated a number of musical projects, including reKINDle, a response to the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 and he’s dedicated to continuing this momentum around family music making and taking it onwards: “I’ve been developing my ideas around family music participation for well over a decade. I am passionate about music and how it can connect families and communities and through my upbringing and my teaching and my work with my own kids, it feels like all these strands are coming together.”

Article by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, and Woody Clark.

RESOURCES:

* Woody’s Good morning song is available online! Download the lyrics and mp3 here for freeeee! You can also download the chords and to complete the experience, there’s a colour-in poster to download, print off and complete as you learn the song.

Woody’s debut album is available from his website which includes wonderful family collaborations. Check it out here here. You can keep up to date with his activities on his Facebook Page

Listen and learn ‘Catch the leaves’ a song written by Woody’s daughter when she was 7 years old.

For further information and inspiration, visit Woody’s website: http://www.woodysworld.com.au/

StreetSounds festival hits the streets of Geelong with aplomb!

Sun shone through grey clouds gathered low over Pakington Street in Geelong West last Saturday morning, jostling to catch a glimpse of the gloriously coloured community musicians gathering in readiness on the grass below to play in the StreetSounds Festival parade and fiesta. The previous evening these same musicians had made their way to Geelong to bring the StreetSounds project to Geelong After Dark, illuminating the darkness with beats, riffs, fat sounds, fairy lights and high vis vests.

The StreetSounds project has been lead by Community Music Victoria since 2015, with funding from R E Ross Trust and Helen Macpherson Smith Trust. Over the past two years, street bands have popped up in Kyneton, Bellbrae and Inverloch; Morwell, Dunolly, and Footscray; Sunshine, Windsor and Melton, all kindled and supported with encouragement, advice and input from StreetSounds project manager, Lyndal Chambers.

Each of the bands is open to anyone and experience, skill levels and age are no barrier to joining in. What’s key is the desire to have fun and connect through making music together in a way that is mobile and can be taken out to the streets and delivered to the broader community for everyone to enjoy. Playing loud music and wearing loud clothes present people with an opportunity to escape the mundanities and worries of life once in a while, whilst making new friends and strengthening local networks: what’s not to love?

Many amazing moments have come to light as the StreetSounds project has unfolded. Horns have been dusted down, flutes and recorders have emerged from packing boxes, marimbas have been built and washboards assembled. There are several families now involved across the project: Amy plays in the Fabulous Meltones together with her three kids and her father.  In the Prahran Accordion Band, Hans has dreamed of being able to play the accordion since childhood.  And for everyone, making music in a band where there are no wrong notes adds a dimension to life, hard to beat.

The element of inclusion which has underpinned the StreetSounds project since its inception was evident at the Festival and in this safe space the crowd brimmed with palpable pride, enjoying the energy and enthusiasm generated by merging and becoming part of a bigger picture. A static crackle of excitement sparkled and sparked through the throng and across West Park on Saturday, exploding into a massed rendition of ‘Caderas’ and Shane Howard’s ‘Talk of the Town’, two common tunes learnt and rehearsed by the bands to play together at that very point.

A pop-up off-shoot of the non-conventional street band ‘Our Community Sounds’ ran an open improvisation workshop in the Park’s rotunda, drawing in members from all of the bands and encouraging them to experiment spontaneously with sound. ‘Our Community Sounds’, facilitated on Saturday by Conor O’Hanlon, shares the same philosophy as the other street bands – one of removing barriers to participation in music making but the delivery is in the form of spontaneous participatory events rather than performances.

“I realised what a unique thing we were all doing – not a Jazz Festival, not a Folk Festival, not a Brass Band Festival, not a Music Camp .. something that’s inclusive of a diversity of skill level, instrumentation and cultures.” Lyndal Chambers, StreetSounds project manager

The clouds could only contain their excitement for so long, and as the rain finally fell, the StreetSounds mob and their homemade banners moved into the hall at West Park where they played short sets all afternoon, joined by the Zamponistas, Havana Palava, Doowlla of Drum Connection and Geelong’s Tate Primary School marimba band, the Marimbataters.

KSB
Darth Vader takes to the streets as part of Kyneton Street Band
Invy Horn Jam 2
Percussionist Steve Schultz & his son drumming up a storm with Invy Horn Jam
Massed Play 8.jpg
Jane Coker, chair of the CMVic board of management giving cues during the massed play
Havana Palava6
Members of Havana Palava meet members of the Sunshine Street Band, Boomulele, & the Fabulous Meltones. Other players from other bands joined in amongst the crowd for a fantastic finale!

Click the  links below to see two glorious photo stories of the event, by Dr Laura Brearley:

1: GEELONG AFTER DARK

2: STREETSOUNDS FESTIVAL

And there are oodles more photos of everyone to see on the StreetSounds Facebook page!

Written by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria

Further reading:

Our Community Sounds: an exciting new improv project

MELTIN’ DOWN AGE BARRIERS IN MELTON: THE INTERGENERATIONAL STREET BAND SUPPORTING FAMILY MUSIC MAKING.

Dreams Come True at Prahran Accordion Band

**To find out about joining a StreetSounds group near you, contact Community Music Victoria or jump on the website, www.cmvic.org.au

The Countdown to Count Us In, is on!

Do you know any school aged children? Do you teach school aged children? If you love a chance to sing with your fledgling and older song birds whilst advocating for the value of music and music education in all schools, this year’s Music: Count Us In program might be just the ticket. On Thursday November 2nd at 12.30pm AEDT, more than half a million children across the country will put down their pens to sing up in ‘a celebration of music and music education.’

MA illustrations final selection-educationMusic: Count Us In (MCUI) is a free program conceived and run by Music Australia to celebrate and advocate for music in Australian schools. Now in its eleventh year, it’s a way for students and teachers to develop their skills as they learn and rehearse a specially written song over several months to be sung at the same time on the same day. Music Australia describe it as ‘the song that stops a nation’ and last year it engaged over 600,000 children from more than 2,500 schools.

While it is recognised that exposure to music in schools enhances student engagement and wellbeing, improves learning and promotes personal and social development, less than a quarter of government schools across Australia are currently able to provide a comprehensive music education.

The MCUI program is one way for children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to access free music education and delivers professional music development and learning resources directly to classroom teachers. This year the professional development sessions will be streamed live for greater outreach to teachers in remote, rural and regional areas.

And there’s more good news. Research based on the participation of schools in previous years indicates that involvement in the program leads to greater recognition of the benefit of music education, within those schools.

 “Generalist teachers develop increased confidence and skills, and specialist teachers use the program as an opportunity to bring the whole school together to celebrate music. Participating in Music: Count Us In is also a great way for schools to engage with their local community, seek local media coverage, advocate directly to their Government representatives and create opportunities to showcase talented and dedicated students and teachers. More students might put their hands up to join existing choirs and music ensembles, Principals might decide to allocate more time and resources to music, teachers might offer more regular music classes per week ….There are so many ways to bring more music into students lives. Music: Count Us In is just the beginning!” Music Australia

A new song is written each year by a selection of school children in collaboration with a ‘music mentor’. This year, the music mentor is singer songwriter  Taylor Henderson who will be working with five students from Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria together with the MCUI program ambassador John Foreman OAM. The song and the teaching resources pack will be good to go in July.

MCUI is open to all schools from early childhood through to high school, in both the government and private sectors. If you are interested in registering or if you’d like to encourage somebody else to, more information can be found here.

The more kids who take part, the more powerful the message to the powers that be about the value and importance of a decent music education for all school aged children.

Deb Carveth: online editor for Community Music Victoria

A child’s brain develops faster with exposure to music education

A study by researchers at the University of Southern California shows that exposure to music and music instruction accelerates the brain development of young children.

Source: A child’s brain develops faster with exposure to music education

Sharing more than song: Singing life back into an old, old concept with a brand new barter choir.

‘If I can reduce my living expenses significantly that’s as good as making money.’ says Werribee singing leader, Steph Payne, who recently established ReciproVocal, a Barter Choir where instead of paying a termly fee to join, participants are invited to share and exchange skills and trades and even sing for their supper. (Steph dreams of dentists, desperate to sing, and who wouldn’t?)

At ReciproVocal, your money won’t get you anywhere! Steph’s vision is for the group to experience not only the bond of solidarity and support for each other common between members in community singing and music groups, but to educate themselves in ways of bartering and skills exchange that will extend out to enrich and sustain the wider community in unforeseen ways.

The idea for ReciproVocal germinated from a seed sewn at an inspirational workshop run by community facilitator, Debby Maziarz, at the Wyndam Arts Incubator, in Werribee. The workshop focussed on bartering and the establishment of mutually beneficial connections between artists and businesses, an idea that resonated heavily with Steph, inspiring a steep and positive learning curve. While she is in no doubt about the sense in trying this ‘revolutionary-retro’ approach, Steph acknowledges that she, herself, had to learn a lot of lessons in the lead up to the launch of the singing group, and that other people may also need time to come around to the concept:

 “There needs to be a huge amount of education around bartering and trading. People can’t see how bartering fits into their world because they’re used to a money based currency.”

Steph has also noticed that even amongst her existing  network of singers and ukulele players all keen to continue working with her, there is often the initial response of ‘but I don’t have anything to trade.’

“But they do! We are all so used to being valued monetarily and comparing ourselves based on what we have. People just don’t realise they have loads of things to trade and that you’ve got to look at it more creatively.”

To encourage new participants to dip a toe in the ReciproVocal waters, Steph is willing to accept money from her singers to begin with, gradually introducing the barter model as the group grows and develops its collective understanding of a non-monetary based currency.

image1
Steph leading Williamstown based singing group, Willin Wimmin

“We’re all fixated by the concept of money. On the one hand it’s a leveller because everything has a monetary value, it’s very open and clear and you can see what you’re buying into. But on a whole lot of other levels it’s incredibly unfair and messed up. Money’s convenient, but it’s a real trap and it only gives things one value, when certain things hold much more.”

A significant piece of the sociological scaffolding required to support the bartering model, is trust. Trust in the validity of the concept by the participants is crucial, and belief by Steph that the services and goods offered will be forthcoming in the way they are promised is important too. A clear, shared understanding of the need for mutual boundaries between the definitions of professional and personal space between members of the group is equally important. This line in the sand is necessary for the sake of all participants because the variety of tendered tasks require varying degrees of access to areas of each other’s lives.

And while response to the idea of ReciproVocal has been hugely positive Steph believes it will be a slow burn to reach a sustainable level of interest, and is prepared for this to take time.  She’s excited by an awareness that the more people she can engage and educate about bartering, the more likely it is that there really can be a functioning level of trading going on, with the possibility of a real alternative economy starting in Werribee.

To help people get their head around the type of things they can bring to the table, there’s an area on the ReciproVocal website which offers examples of what 8 weeks in a choir is worth. Steph has supplied this as a guide to allow people to work out for themselves the equivalent ‘value’ of what they might like to offer.

Again, a sliding scale of value applies because the value is not just monetary. It’s not as simple as being a term’s worth of singing valued at $150. Singers might offer a service which will save Steph time, or produce something she needs or simply just wants, or be able to arrange a lead into further work for her. The option of third party trade also exists. For example, you may not be willing to mow Steph’s lawn but you might know somebody who is for whom you can babysit, who will then mow the lawn and the chain of exchange grows longer and more embedded.

Steph is always looking to enrich and develop communities through the groups that she runs. It’s a strong part of what drives her. In the past she’s run a singing group in a pub because of the immediate social set up, and she’s hopeful that Reciprivocal will grow to enrich the community in a myriad of ways. Her hope is that once people are engaged in the trading and bartering concept, they will extend those terms and values of collaborative, sustainable living to each other, and eventually to people and life situations beyond the singing group:

“There’s a great level of satisfaction in getting your needs met in a way that’s not financial. As a person with something to offer, as a product as a service, any of us have a choice in how we exchange that. We have our needs, we have our resources, it’s about how to match those two things up. “

Article by Deb Carveth, online editor for Community Music Victoria, in collaboration with Steph Payne.

RECIPROVOCAL SEEKS SINGERS!! Open to adults of any age and experience. Rehearsals are Thursdays 7-8.30pm 8 weeks per term. Starting July 28, 2016-08-04  Venue: Wyndham Arts Incubator, Old Shire Offices, Room 4, Cnr Watton St & Duncans Rd, Werribee.VIC 3030 www.reciprovocal.com.au  www.facebook.com/reciprovocal  Email: unstrungmusic@gmail.com

 

 

Singing to be Strong: Overcoming anxieties through song

Last Thursday, singing leader Richard Lawton woke up planning to head to the Royal Melbourne Hospital as he has done for the past eight weeks where he runs a singing group for outpatients living with an eating disorder. Except last Thursday Richard felt “a bit crappy with bit of a headache and feeling sludgy.” He could feel his resistance before he’d even emerged from under the covers.

“I was wondering ‘do I have to?… I’d rather stay in bed …’ and it’s a familiar voice in my head because as a card carrying introvert, every night before choir (I have four now) I have to walk myself through this, and it’s the same voice that says ‘I really don’t want to expose my self and be seen by a room full of people’ which is of course what a singing leader does.”

So last Thursday morning, Richard persevered and as he reached the entrance of the hospital it dawned on him how he probably wasn’t alone in his thoughts and how difficult it might well be for the outpatients heading along to his group. Anxiety and eating disorders are good friends, and eight weeks is a relatively short period of time in which to feel completely at ease in a new and unfamiliar situation. Richard senses an element of uncertainty lingering among his singing group at the Royal Melbourne and works to create a welcoming environment in which the outpatients can let down their guard and relax in a safe and fearless space.

“The chairs all have cushions on, and for the first couple of weeks people would come in, sit down and put a cushion on their lap. So they were putting up a defence immediately… There’s a lot of shame involved among patients with eating disorders and it’s important to be mindful of this as somebody encouraging them to open up and let go.”

Supported by a psychologist from within the department, Richard takes guidance from the singing group about ways to put the singers at ease and overcome challenges particular to them, often having to modify approaches and practice he would use readily with his other groups.

Care also has to be taken around use of words. No allusions to image or physicality or exercise. These boundaries are set by the singers who make it clear that to do so will provoke unnecessary anxiety among them. The group Richard works with does not comprise solely of the stereotype teenage girl. Participants range in age from Year 12 to their 40s and while there are guys in the inpatients at the hospital, Richard’s current singing group is all female.

Not knowing the background or the trigger of the illness among the individuals with whom he is working, it is also important that Richard allows them the freedom to choose which songs they sing to avoid material with unsuitable content or unwelcome connotations which may, again, instigate anxiety and prevent people from taking part. “The Cups song from Pitch Perfect is a favourite, and ‘Titanium’ is another one they like.”

Early on, in the inpatient program, only a handful of patients chose to take part in the singing group and it was a challenge to get those who did come along to sing at all during the hour long session. They looked so glum, Richard was wondering if he’d ever be able to break through. It was feedback from the psychologist which encouraged him to keep going in those initial weeks. Even if few of the patients were singing for the entire session and giving no outward signs of engagement or pleasure, their feedback was that they found it relaxing. In the outpatients program, more of them are singing and the numbers have increased.

“Anxiety levels are high. You want control. The thing about purging and eating is that you feel like you don’t have control over your life or your environment and this is one thing you can control. So when they talked about finding singing a relaxing thing, I thought, “oh right, so it’s doing something.”

One exercise Richard uses to combine movement with sound encourages everyone to stand up and shout as if hailing a taxi: Hey! Heeeey! HEEEEEEY!.. with each exhalation and sound growing louder and more sustained. The group cooperate well with this one, becoming less self conscious and more engaged as time goes on. It’s an activity that produces good vibration and masses of endorphins, too.

“When you enter the building everything is so quiet but when the group leaves, they are vocal and enlivened. They have found their voices. They also appreciate the act of singing together, of doing something with other people.”

Anyone who has sung regularly with a singing group will identify with the sense of connection which develops between members of the group. The act of singing facilitates this bond and even aligns the heartbeats of people singing together. Experiencing this sense of connectedness is an important contributor to mental health recovery and a sense of individual peace and wellbeing.

Richard works to empathise with the group, sharing his own doubts and insecurities. The more they feel at ease, the more they will open up and sing. The more they sing the better they will feel and hopefully, the stronger they will grow. And it really seems to be working.

“Last week, when I started the session I could tell that a few of them were having a rough day and I told them a story about how the night before I’d gone to a Contact Dance class for the first time in months. Contact Dance is something I used to be very good at, but it’s mostly a young person’s form, and my mind was coming up with all the familiar excuses as to why I should stay home. Then, when I was almost there I couldn’t find the venue, and almost turned back. Eventually I got through the door and it was wild – I had a ball.

When I told the singing group that story, a couple of them said ‘yes, I had so many excuses for not leaving home today,’ and ‘I got as far as Central station and very nearly turned back.’ So we talked about the importance of ‘getting through the door,’ and how so many times in life we allow our fears to hold us back, and how important it is to get ourselves through the door…

The door metaphor is about how we sometimes shy away from the very thing that is good for us. We know that singing makes us feel better and yet sometimes it still feels too hard.”

For Richard who leads the singing group on a voluntary basis, reward comes from feeling his work is having a positive impact on the lives and the recovery process of the singers.

“I think what touches me about working there is about those days when my skin feels too thin to be out in the world, to be seen, to have to show up, (and as a white male I have it stacked in my favour). When I’m with these women who are wrestling with the human condition there’s a part of me that’s very humbled. And there’s another part of me that wants to wave a magic wand so they can see how most of the negative thoughts they have about themselves are a cruel illusion. “

While magic wands are scarce, Richard’s work in the outpatients’ department might be the next best thing. The group reports feeling calm, more free and relaxed after singing together.  “A lot of them are perfectionists, seeking something they can never have. Eating disorders are one of the few mental illnesses which can kill you or from which you can make a full recovery. It is very hard to measure the success rate of patients who are discharged as they go off and live a full life.”

As each weekly session ends, the group leaves and the hospital corridor echoes with voices raised in more chatter with less silence. The soothing balm of singing works its wonder, the endorphins flow, and the world feels a better place for it. Just last week, Richard heard from the supervisor how after the group had finished, the singers went out to a café where they were much more upbeat and talked about how much they’d enjoyed getting up on their feet and singing and moving that day. That’s pretty magical.

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Richard at work, leading one of his regular weekly singing groups in Elsternwick
Written by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for Community Music Victoria, with Richard Lawton.