SING Your Way To Better Health
Chair and Joint Musical Director of the North Prospect Community Choir
You never know what lies around the corner.
At the beginning of 1995 I was young, healthy, incredibly active, a teacher of music and drama, had been married for 14 years and had two adorable daughters. How things changed in a matter of months as, by the end of 1995 my life had been turned upside down. I would never be the man I’d been before. Following a camping holiday in France where I had been severely bitten by mosquitoes, a virus had been triggered, one that did irreparable damage and one that I would never fully recover from. In December 1995 I was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyalitis, ME, also referred to as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
I suffered a bereavement in that I had lost a life. No longer could I do what I wanted to when I wanted to. My life had become one of inactivity spent mostly bedbound or on the sofa. My body was like a battery that never recharged. My wife used to take me up onto Plymouth Hoe where I would shuffle from one bench to another; a pitiful sight of someone who was only 36 years old.
Despite the incredible support from my immediate family and doctors and having spent thousands of pounds on alternative complementary therapy treatments, I came to realise that there was no cure. I lost my job, a job I loved. I lost friends and family who just couldn’t understand or appreciate what I was going through. I lost my independence. I lost my dignity.
No longer did I laugh however there was a lot of crying. I cried because I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. My mood swings got worse out of sheer frustration and there were times when I knew I was hurting the ones I loved and were nearest to me but I couldn’t stop myself and then on the darkest of days, at my lowest ebb, I phoned the Samaritans; not because I was thinking of doing anything rash but because I felt so alone and helpless.
It wasn’t until I was prescribed a course of cognitive behavioural therapy that I began to climb the path to a better life. I began to gradually turn negative into positive. I began to learn how to live and manage a life despite having a debilitating illness.
I had loved my job as a music and drama teacher and I was privileged to work with two wonderful colleagues. We were, at our finest moments, a formidable team. My greatest love was musical theatre and in my time I had performed, directed, produced and choreographed major musical productions.
However, the most devastating effect of my illness was that I lost my sense of pitch. My brain had been completely scrambled, melodies dimmed and melted away into nothing. This was major not minor! The music I so loved had been wrenched out of my inner being. I was empty, lifeless; how could you imagine a life without music.
Roll forward the years........ My illness still affects me every day and probably always will. Eventually, other positives came into my life but for now I’m more concerned with the power of music and how you can sing your way to a better life.
In October 2016 I saw by chance, an advert for the start of a new community choir and the key words in the advert were, non- auditioned, inclusive, vibrant, fun and friendly. I decided to give it a go.
Emma, the founder and musical director had a wonderful manner of calmness and enthusiasm. At the first rehearsal I was one of three men but I went back week after week. It was hard, it was draining but I persevered and gradually over time the music part of my brain began to work and started to become less scrambled. The melodies began to flow and got much stronger; I started to hear the music again.
The great thing about the choir is that it is made up of people of all ages and backgrounds of varying musical ability. They come together on a Monday evening to rehearse leaving their troubles at the door. They love singing and having fun. The choir is neither pretentious nor precious.
So, what has the choir actually done for me? It is probably the most effective medicine I have ever been prescribed! Besides the social benefits where friendships have blossomed, it has been much more.
Studies have shown and I am testament to them, that being involved in a community choir has many psychological and emotional benefits. Singing is a natural anti-depressant, it lowers stress levels and it improves mental alertness. Singing strengthens the immune system. It is a physical workout. It improves your posture and helps with sleep.
Singing provides an inclusive and cost effective means of combating the disintegration of communities that is becoming endemic in many societies today. It is no wonder that some doctors are prescribing music on the NHS! If appropriate, referring patients to activities like singing, art lessons and community groups is called “social prescribing” and apparently it’s becoming more and more common in general practice than ever before!
Isn’t it funny how the twists and turns of life have such an impact. My story doesn’t end by just joining the choir. There is another chapter and one that I never thought I would be able to write about.
In the summer of 2018 Emma’s husband, quite selfishly in my opinion, was offered a job in the Bahamas, a job he could not refuse and so it was the start of a new adventure for Emma and her family.
The choir appointed a new musical director but unfortunately the relationship between MD and choir did not develop in a satisfactory manner and three weeks before the 2018 Christmas Concert parted company. As Chair, I decided to stand in and conduct the concert. What a scary prospect but the experience was exhilarating. But I was back. It was the first time I had conducted a choir for 23 years! I was determined that the choir would continue.
I am now joint musical director together with the young and talented Ryan Jenkins. I do the musical theatre and he does the pop, rock n roll! We complement one another and have developed a wonderful working relationship. To be honest, I couldn’t even contemplate taking on the role long term without his support.
Ryan and I share rehearsal time. We ensure rehearsals are fun and full of laughter. Our relationship with the choir is special. I love our ethos that the choir is totally inclusive, in that everyone is welcome, no matter the level of their musical talent. We ensure that every individual member is valued. However, we work the choir extremely hard. Our ambition and aspirations for the choir is to make it sound as good as it possibly can, developing quality of sound and all round musicality. I am astounded by the improved level of musical literacy in such a short time and this includes my own.
Ryan is learning how ME affects me. He can sense when my energy levels are beginning to plummet and when I am struggling and he is there to prop me up. Together, we are developing strategies to overcome the problems of being a musical director of a choir.
I have to micro-learn all the music as I don’t have the cognitive and mental capabilities I had before I became ill 24 years ago. However, I am finding that my mental alertness is much improved. My sense of pitch is getting better although by no means pitch perfect.
ME is an invisible illness. To look at me I seem relatively normal but don’t judge a book by its cover. It’s the inside that’s damaged. The energy I put into rehearsals takes its toll and the accumulative effect of over exerting myself results in my body saying enough is enough. These are the times I can feel the energy seeping out of my body; a most bizarre sensation. There then follows a period of inactivity until I stabilise again. This is what ordinary people don’t see, understand or appreciate. An illness such as ME has to be managed carefully avoiding boom and bust; life must be paced.
Are the adverse effects of me being a musical director of a choir worth it? Definitely, Yes! My mental health is much improved. Fabulous friendships have been forged and I’m getting a real buzz out of life again.
There are times when I don’t have the mental capability to cope with the complexities of some of the music we attempt to do and so, at times, Ryan and I team conduct; a great revelation and concept in teamwork.
I love being involved with the choir. It has given me a sense of purpose. It has given me a sense of worth, has raised my self-esteem and given me back my confidence in something I never thought I would ever do again back in the dark days of 1995. Thank you North Prospect Community Choir!
Written by David Walters, Chair and Co-Musical Director of the North Prospect Community Choir