Wednesday 8 April 2015

Singing and Cystic Fibrosis

As Bianca Nicholas gears up to hit the stage for Eurovision 2015, composer Gareth Williams discusses Breath Cycle, a community singing project he developed at Scottish Opera to explore the impact of singing on cystic fibrosis. For Breath Cycle Gareth collaborated with the respiratory ward at Gartnavel Hospital in Glasgow, and worked with a number of people with cystic fibrosis.

“The exercise of singing is delightfull to Nature, & good to preserve the health of Man….
It doth strengthen all parts of the brest, & doth open the pipes.”

These are two of many reasons given by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd (born c.1539) as to why we should all sing. The idea that singing is beneficial to our health and wellbeing has clearly been around for a while, and Breath Cycle was the beginning of our journey to finding out more.

The findings from the pilot project were very encouraging and so over the next few years our plan is to open the Breath Cycle project up across several CF centres and take as many participants through the process of learning to sing as we can.

Before Breath Cycle, I had spent years working with opera singers. They are the professional athletes of singing and breathing – their voices can fill huge auditoriums, carry across full orchestras, and even shatter glass (so the story goes).

I see so many parallels in the daily routines of the opera singers I know and the participants with CF that I worked with. They both have daily rituals, exercises, regimes and routines to keep their instrument/their lungs in good working order. Opera singers work hard so that they can perform, and people with CF so that they can continue to live their lives on their own terms.

When fragility turns up on the opera stage, it is not as we think of it – Violetta at the end of La Traviata, or Mimi at the close of La Boheme, are both characters with chronic lung conditions who nevertheless seem to have the lung capacity to stun a fully grown elephant with a well-aimed top C.

Through Breath Cycle, I came to the conclusion that singing doesn’t have to be fireworks and dazzling displays of pitch-perfect spiralling to be engaging, meaningful and powerful, because it is, at its core, the act of breathing beautifully. 

Listening to the right singer with the right song moves us more than anything else can, because underneath the melodies and the counter-melodies, the harmonies and the rhythms, is a reminder to us all of what we are and what sustains us. Breath.

Here’s a song from Breath Cycle that David Brock and I created for five people with cystic fibrosis. It was recorded and assembled in a recording studio in Glasgow and sung beautifully by Breath Cycle participants. Of all the performances of my music I’ve witnessed, this is the one I am most proud of:

I might argue that there is only one thing more wondrous than the act of singing, and that is the act of singing together, and this is my aspiration – that people with CF can meet online and sing with one another. There are songs to be written, the technology exists – we just need to find the singers!

In the words of the composer William Byrd: “Since Singing is so good a thing, I wish all men would learn to sing.”

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