How does one train to deliver a Singing for Better Health workshop?

It is indeed, a journey. A wonderful one.

Far before I started offering workshops and singing groups for better health I have been thinking in something I still thinking about, and that is, what is it that makes a singing group for Health and Well-being different to any other singing group, like a regular choir, or a community choir? How does must apply in my practice? What do I need to address? What shall I know? What training should I look for and where to get it? And again, how do we address the ongoing professional development to get better, to know more about health and how does it apply in practice in the singing class.

As for today, I haven’t yet found that there is specific training all in one block that supports the workshop leader into delivering a Singing for better health workshop. It may happen that one day some organisation decides to put together such package in the form of a diploma or modules that can be delivered in enabling musicians to take this path, but since this is something that at the moment I don’t think exists as such, it’s important to discuss and be part of this conversation with other workshop leaders and healthcare organisations to understand what are the needs, be able to learn about public health and the delivery of this specific kind of workshop and contribute to the credibility that scientists are already giving with numerous studies and publications about them about the many benefits that singing has for people’s health.

I believe that it would be important to be able to demarcate what is not a Singing for better health workshop. Like for example, it’s not music therapy. Even if I understand that music making and singing can be therapeutic, I would not be engaging in a therapeutic process and I am not a music therapist.

Kalani Das, an awarded American music therapist whom I think delivers a wonderful work, explains very clearly and easily what music therapy is, while at the same time contemplates that there are clear therapeutic benefits from music for those who practice it.

“While music can be very therapeutic, Music Therapy is the delivery of music-based experiences by a certified music therapist within a client-therapist relationship, who has therapeutic goals and objectives. “

So this is why I don’t flag myself as a music therapist. But there is a therapeutic power on the music itself, and it’s a wonderful one.

So does it mean that by practicing singing we automatically benefit from this therapeutic effect? I would normally say no, but actually after having watched, worked with, seen videos and read about different approaches by many choir leaders, and even with an approach that was not necessarily “Singing for health” approach, many of us have seen mental or physical or social benefits from it! But we can do better, know better and be of course more focused about this so that this effects are not random consequences and we are actually capable of navigating into designing the session according to a better health plan.

Brief overview. If health is physical, mental and social (and those of them related and interacting between them), it would be convenient that the Singing for Health workshop leader has some health awareness and training in scientifically proven methods. That will exclude, as I see, any esoteric and not proven techniques (although I would have to write more about this, as I have experienced and seen in others benefits and I am still very interested in knowing more and getting to understand more about it and why these methods can offer -in some cases- some kind of well-being, as they might not be because of the reason practitioners explain about such methods). I believe it all should be studied with professional criteria and parameters.

So never trying to pretend to be a health care personal, training in basic and important principles of health can create the first and very important difference for a workshop leader, as well as how this reflects in the practice.

A good knowledge on the functioning of the singing voice. Anatomy of the vocal tract and how to support participants who may have a problem, and when to acknowledge that they should visit their doctor about a vocal problem. A trained professional singer has for sure studied this (I would think this happens) or at least someone who has done some teacher training in singing. But workshop leaders are sometimes instrument players. And interpretation and understanding on how the singing voice works is something we know more about than twenty years ago, so to say. Fortunately there are courses open to all about the singing voice and how to understand better anatomy and the physiological process of it (and in UK, I very much recommend the workshops by Anne-Marie Speed on this).

A good knowledge on breathing techniques for singing, and I would also add some training in the understanding of respiratory conditions, as even as they are specific groups for sufferers of these conditions, personal circumstances and distance sometimes don’t make possible that every patient is able to attend. There are many workshops on breathing techniques, but sometimes they are more related to relaxation and meditation and not always about singing, so as far as they might be still of interest, it will be important to be able to understand breathing for the singing voice, and help participants improve their breathing and coordination, which is what we will do most of the time.  Knowledge on postural habits and how to help people improve them is another essential. There are many good courses on this, and to add to it I was lucky to participate in the training course provided by the Sidney de Haan Centre, at Canterbury University, on COPD for singing workshop leaders, that was of great value to me, apart from support from Dr Agnieszka Lewko senior lecturer at Kingston University, and special thanks to Angela Reith, who kindly invited me to visit her Singing for Lung Health workshop at the Royal Brompton Hospital, and the association AsmaMadrid (Madrid’s asthmatic association) from which I had my first insights into respiratory conditions when living in Spain.

Disability awareness. Having in mind that almost one in five people in the United Kindom live with a disability (data from Disabled Living Foundation (DLF) 2017) and that these dissabilities can be visual, auditive, motor or affecting thinking or memory, being able to recognise an accessible space and what changes we might have to do in order to support disabled participants, as well to deliver an accessible workshop and when we can’t cater for certain specific needs, as well in how to support during performances and event organisation in the case we have to contribute to the organisation of a performance. Disability awareness and accredited disability awareness courses are available in the United Kindom.

Mental health awareness is another of big importance and there are numerous courses that a workshop leader can take on this that are open to non doctors and non therapist. Mind offers Mental Health awareness training and also available through various volunteer services in different Boroughs. Learning on how mental health can improve and how we can support mental health with the singing workshop in practice can be a great part of it. As far as it’s not possible to address every mental health problem in the class, I am more and more concerned on how after knowing more about it, it is possible to support mental health with our activity.

Nevertheless, as one can see, this means that a workshop leader interested in delivering Singing for better health sessions already would have had to train in many different places and try to put together their own training package in order to tick all that boxes, or visit sessions for a colleague who is already doing them and is experienced, and I haven’t finished yet!

I believe that with time, it will be more common that organisations or specialists can deliver a training package, basic or more in depth, that can support a singing workshop leader into having the tools they need for delivering their workshops with confidence and efficacy. The case I know the best is at Kensington and Chelsea Borough’s programme Sing to Live, Live to Sing, that comprises eight singing workshops in different parts of the borough and for which I am happy to have worked in it’s framework document. The programme contemplates the type of training that workshop leaders should be more likely to be getting and organises a number of training sessions a year with all workshop leaders. It will be very beneficial to put experiences like this together in common with any other institution that could be doing similar work.

Learning about specific health issues in the case of having to address an homogeneous group can introduce two more aspects I haven’t mentioned about. When I worked delivering singing workshops for people living with HIV I learned a lot about it thanks to the clinic I was working for, who allowed me to attend support groups that they would organise for patients, and thanks to the participants who let me knew about the complexities and the many related issues that HIV entails. The next step, how do you apply these understanding in delivering a better workshop for them. I hope I will develop this concept in a further blog post.

Of course, I am not listing musical capacities, and this is already taught officially and packaged, but of all this list I am understanding that the workshop leader is already a capable musician who can sing and has done teacher training so that is able to manage a choir or singing group and supporting participants in being active.

If possible, it’s of good support to train on how to deal with difficult situations, how to have a difficult conversation, and in the cases where one is going to be alone with a group, first aid.

Finally, I would add that apart from knowledge and structure, personal skills and personality can make a big difference. And on a personal level, you would have to be someone who genuinely likes people, enjoys spending time with them and listening to them. Besides, being able to support participants into opening up to each other, proposing activities that will generate a social exchange and a good atmosphere in the classroom, and even mover, I would add the body language and the tone of voice, the speed at which we speak to our singers, can also make a big difference.

Being as I am, a person who can tend to stress, I have recently found how doing a bit of sound meditation before a singing workshop supports my talking speed and tone, and I could see how this was having an effect on the behaviour and attention of participants in the singing groups. So I have resolved that I will do so before every workshop this term. Right, is this really health specific? As far as health is also social and it affects the group dynamic, I would say yes, but also, don’t forget to take care of your own health! Caring about ourselves we can provide better workshops, focused attention, better understanding and care.