By Jane Metcalfe

It’s widely acknowledged that singing is good for you: it lifts the spirits and brings people together. Being part of a singing group, small or large, gives the individual a sense of communality, well-being and achievement (see Music for Wellbeing in Issue 189). And singing is particularly beneficial for people whose physical and mental functions are impaired. There’s just something about giving voice in song that sharpens everything, as I’ve discovered through a decade of running The ParkinSongsters.

Set up as a therapy group in 2010 by Parkinson’s UK, Bexhill, Hastings and Rother branch, the initial aim was to provide healthful voice and breathing exercises to help with the speech and swallowing difficulties that affect so many with the condition. We soon discovered that the most effective way to consolidate the exercises was through singing, and thus The ParkinSongsters was born. 

The group first met on a snowy November afternoon in an ice-cold hall along the Bexhill Road. None of us knew quite what to expect. Founder member, Allan Barfield, had enjoyed singing with The Hastleons until Parkinson’s
made it difficult to continue. Determined to keep himself active for as long as possible, he persuaded the local Parkinson’s UK branch to set up the group and I was approached by Allan to run it. Reluctant at first, despite years of facilitating voice workshops for music therapy students, Allan’s persistence won, and I agreed to give it a go. 

It was obvious from the first session that those who came along shared Allan’s enthusiasm. They immediately entered into the spirit of things, and their enthusiasm has kept the group going from strength to strength over the years – as well as providing us all with a sense of achievement. People have come and gone, but an essence of each of them remains and, I like to think, inspires those who have joined at a later date. 

In 2013 the group was asked to sing at a lunchtime concert in Holy Trinity Church; it was such a success that we didn’t stop until live performance was temporarily shut down. We sang in all sorts of situations, from churches to care homes; we had a flash-mob in Morrison’s and, until recently, an annual Christmas stint in the minstrel’s gallery at Conquest Hospital, serenading visitors with a programme of seasonal songs. In 2016 we made a short film about the group, funded by The Big Lottery, about the large benefits of singing for people with Parkinson’s. You can watch it at www.parkinsongsters.co.uk

The group has tackled pretty-much all styles, our repertoire includes nursery rhymes, jazz standards, folk, opera, humorous and much more. We like to send ourselves up in a light-hearted way – Always Look on the Bright Side of Life being a favourite encore. And of course we do some whacky things in the name of exercises as we don’t believe in doing things by halves. Everything counts in small but meaningful ways towards feeling better and more confident, culminating in a sense of self-validation when we sing in front of our always enthusiastic audiences.

After an 18-month gap, we booked a date to meet in early September to practice for our delayed tenth anniversary concert. As I helped set up chairs, I wondered if many would come back, but when the hall doors opened at 2.30pm, thirteen keen ‘songsters’ entered, making a beeline for their seats. Despite the freshly-painted hall, glossy floor and smart new clock that told the correct time, everything was back in place for our first live session, and a round of our favourite ‘wacky’ Name Game began…

The Anniversary Concert is at St John’s Church, Pevensey Road, St Leonards-on-Sea, Monday 6 December, 3-4.30pm. Guest tenor, Gary Marriott. Free entry but donations invited.

The ParkinSongsters meet Mondays, 2.45-4pm at St John’s Church Hall, Brittany Road.
For more details please visit www.parkinsongsters.co.uk 


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