When you walk into a room full of people who can hardly breathe the last thing you expect them to do is burst into song.
But at the Singing4Breathing second birthday celebration this week they not only did that but they performed renditions of ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Perfect Day’ for Northampton Mayor Gareth Eales to thank him for the support he has given the project.
There were over a hundred people at the Parklands Community Centre, all of them with some form of debilitating lung condition – COPD being the most common but a range of respiratory problems were represented.
The group organiser James Wyatt stood beside me during the final rehearsal just before the arrival of Northampton’s first citizen.
As the choir polished up their version of ‘Blackbird’ he discretely outlined some of the conditions the singers were suffering from. There are no cures for the illnesses he was mentioning and he added: “We’ve got two terminal…”
The list was made more poignant by the feel of the group: almost every moment was punctured by a bit of banter.
When James took centre stage you could see how he set the tone as he handed out bottles of bubbly to group members who were due some thanks or deserved recognition for an achievement. A bit of mickey taking here, a nudge and a smile there.
The friendly atmosphere is an important element of Singing4Breathing, because when people first arrive they often don’t believe their lungs are up to it.
“People say to me: ‘James how can I sing, I can’t even breathe?’ but within about five minutes of arriving there is such a friendly atmosphere and people are so supportive that they just get on with it,” said James who is an occupational therapist at St Andrews Hospital and organises the group in his spare time.
His previous career involved doing groundwork on roads and after what he describes with a chuckle as a ‘mid-life crisis’ he retrained as an occupational therapist, including completing a special project on the therapeutic effects of singing for people with respiratory conditions.
James decided to put theory into practice and started Singing4Breathing.
“Research is still being done on the health benefits but certainly people find that their conditions, which might normally get worse, hit a plateau. It is not a cure but if their lung capacity has been reduced they are learning to use what they have got left better,” said James.
Ted Peters is 73 and arrived at Singing4Breathing’s birthday party in a black jacket and trilby hat. A gemstone earring twinkles in his ear.
He said: “I do a lot of exercise, mainly walking, I used to a lot more until I got my breathing problems but the choir is like exercise for my lungs. It teaches you to use your lungs better. It’s a good group, I can’t say enough about it.”
Ted smoked 50 cigarettes a day in an era when advertisers claimed it was good for your health.
“I constantly had one on the go. I would put one out and light another. I would wake up in the middle of the night and smoke. I also worked for oil companies in the desert. I thought I might have silicosis. A lot of the locals suffered from it because of the sand.”
Ron Mardell takes his wife Sally to the group.
“Since she started coming she has not had one bronchitic cough,” he said, convinced that in a straightforward way Singing4Breathing brings an improvement in quality of life.
Northampton Mayor Gareth Eales has championed the group since it began. He was part of the committee that voted it a Heart of the Community award in its first year.
He said: “Singing4Breathing is doing pioneering work and it really is pioneering, they are a group of which Northampton and James Wyatt can be justly proud.”
Pictures by Louise Smith