The power of song – community singing and Parkinson’s

The great songstress Linda Ronstadt makes no bones about it – she is living with Parkinson’s disease and “can’t sing at all” these days (New York Times, 28/09/2013). The former rock superstar’s vocal production has been so significantly compromised by the condition that she can no longer do the thing that she loved most.

During her career, Ms Ronstadt, a vocal technician of the highest calibre, proved so adept at singing she could move fluently between her country-rock of the 1970s and 1980s to Mexican canciones. She mastered the lush ballads of the 1940s and moved on to the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan (and in a reworking for Broadway of The Pirates of Penzance delivered a chesty belt to unnerve Miss Merman). While she no longer sings in public, the legendary soloist says she “preaches choirs” (ABC, 16/09/2013) and graciously praises the benefits of community singing. She believes that the solo voice, no matter how great or how fallen, can find solace in combined music-making. So, what is the role of community singing for people living with Parkinson’s?

First of all let’s be clear about what Parkinson’s disease actually is. It is a progressive neurological condition that has no known cure. Characteristics of the disease include a shuffling gait and tremors in the limbs. The disease affects muscle movement in a wide range of areas: motion, swallowing, the digestive system, bladder flow, speech and breathing. Around 70,000 people in the country where I live (Australia) are living with Parkinson’s, but it affects people all around the world. The illness is not selective with its choices: famously, actor Michael J. Fox was diagnosed young (30); the late great Muhammad Ali had Parkinson’s as did Johnny Cash. More recently, actor/comedian Billy Connolly was diagnosed after a fan noticed tell-tale signs of Parkinson’s during a concert and made contact.

I was diagnosed when I was 50, and while I had never claimed to be a musician I had loved music all my life, worked with it, and continued to find it a balm and a therapy as I worked through the early stages of the condition and beyond. After my diagnosis I was keen to explore the benefits of music, both emotionally and physiologically.

Research is demonstrating that the interplay of music and the emotions is a significant reason why music has the power to improve wellness in people. In this article, the focus will be on music and the emotions in people living with Parkinson’s. It offers an anecdotal reflection on the power of music in choirs for people living with Parkinson’s.

Shortly after my diagnosis I assisted with the development of a singing group in Perth, Western Australia. I also took on the role of choir director. The group, known as Parkinsong, was an initiative of Parkinson’s WA with a focus on social interaction and the benefits of singing rather than music as a therapy. These goals were met through a community singalong, drawing on popular repertoire from different eras and across styles. An early indication of its benefit appeared at the first session with one attendee, who had been advised by his occupational therapist to “work on his face” as it was developing the symptomatic mask-like impassiveness. He reported that after singing the iconic anthem, I Still Call Australia Home, a song which had strong personal associations for him, he had felt certain muscles move in his face for the first time in a long time. Similarly, at a session with another choir we established in the rural city of Bunbury, south of Perth, another attendee reported that after his first session he had his “spring back in his walk and could whistle again”. There are clearly physiological benefits to be gained from singing. In group singing, however, we observed other benefits, emotional and psychological.

Despite the physical limitations the disease places on those of us with the illness, singing together brings a simple communion to individuals in a health crisis. Some shuffle in to singing, some collide with objects as they battle to coordinate their walking, some are in wheelchairs – these are clearly people with specific and individual requirements. However, singing unites them for a few moments, and they feel connected. Indeed, a new dignity can emerge from the power of this union.

We once performed a short concert at the end of the year. I had the group arranged in two rows of chairs so they could be seated for the duration of the event. We did exercises to relax our breathing, and as the audience arrived they were greeted by smiling and calm choir members. The choir sang a short programme, and they sang as well as they could. For some, the effort of holding their choir book showed, and there were heads that shook and hands that trembled as they struggled to turn pages. But they remained seated and calm until the final song. The finale was an anthem to music, and everyone rose from their chairs (which they held for support), smiled at me, breathed, and sang steadfastly through a long and lovely paean to singing.

For their efforts, they were cheered and bravo-ed. As someone with vast experience of audience responses, I have an instinct for what is genuine and what is affectation. This was spontaneous, genuine applause, and looking into the audience I could see tears among the smiles. Afterwards I was told repeatedly by attendees that what was so inspiring was the courage and sheer determination that these singers had shown. They had remained calm and gracious despite the obvious physical effort required of them. That they should care enough to want to sing for others, I was told, was very moving.

This is important because community singing not only delivers benefits to individual singers it also allows them the crucial moment of giving to others, in this case the gift of song. For a brief moment they are no longer “dependents”, they are the providers, and that is a tonic in a life built upon small mercies. The power of music remains strong, even in those of us living with a chronic illness.

 Sign Up