We come here for fun!
On 30 April 2019, in a packed room at the Royal College of Physicians, a beaming 40-strong choir belted out a new composition by musician Victoria Hume. The only clue that this wasn’t an ordinary choir was the occasional nasal cannula and the fact that the title of the work was ‘The Singing Hospital’.
The piece was commissioned to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the ‘Singing for Breathing’ programme at Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Trust. The groups were initially set up as part of an arts development programme aimed at commissioning new work in collaboration with patients. Singing seemed an obvious fit for respiratory patients as the breathing exercises they were being advised to do were very similar to those used by choirs. What started as an arts project has grown and evolved over the past ten years. There are now three well established groups at the Trust and the ‘singing for lung health’ concept has spread nationally and internationally.
Victoria Hume is a woman with many hats – a musician, composer, researcher and director of the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance. Thanks to Arts Council funding, she began work on this commission by visiting the signing groups, sitting in on the sessions and interviewing the participants.
Talking about the development process, Victoria says “I didn’t do anything musical until I’d spoken to people as it’s quite easy to come to a project like this with my own prejudices and opinions. I started writing the music whilst I was transcribing the conversations, picking up on phrases and intonation. Often people speak in quite a musical way which can be translated into a little melody. I went back to the groups with some initial ideas – quite a few of which were thrown out for being too depressing – but that was a really helpful process. They are an assertive bunch of people and the leaders support people’s voices in every way. They were quick to make suggestions and get involved in the process. It felt very collaborative.”
Although the three choirs had spent weeks rehearsing separately, this performance was the first time they had all sung together. Watching from the audience it is clear how much the groups loved being part of it – the singers were just beaming, glowing with pride and enjoyment, and relishing lines like “We come here for fun” and “I thought I couldn’t sing”.
Victoria was thrilled with the performance “They performed it amazingly – it was such a privilege to have my work performed by people who are so invested in the process, to whom it means so much. What is so striking about the groups is the sense of community and the way people look out for each other. And it’s all about agency, about people finding something meaningful to themselves and acting on it – so much of medical treatment is about passivity, about receiving treatment, whereas the choirs are all about activity.”
Victoria hopes that other groups might like to learn and perform the song and group leaders can download it here and we can all enjoy this video of the performance.