Sing for Health, The Sage, Gateshead

John Robert Brown

Held soon after Howard Goodall's appointment as the UK's 'singing ambassador', charged to give singing a prominent role in school life, the timing of the one-day conference Sing For Health at the Sage Gateshead in late March was propitious. Chairman of the strategy commission making the recommendations that formed part of the Music Manifesto, Howard Goodall is keen to help Britain's singing leaders share their skills with others, exactly in line with the aims of Sing for Health.

The conference, a combined initiative of The Sage Gateshead, 20,000 Voices and Music Leader North East brought together key advocates for the health benefits of regular singing. And if the timing was canny, the choice of venue was equally smart. The superb £70 million Sage Gateshead building by Lord Foster and Mott MacDonald on the south bank of the Tyne has had a palpable effect on local music making, being an accessible, comfortable and stylish venue.

Delegates' name badges at Sing for Health tended towards unspecific, fungible, titles: community worker, project manager, coordinator, development officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant, counsellor and administrator. More specific professions included midwife, Tai Chi instructor and various types of teacher, from an antenatal specialist to several university professors. Just thirteen of the 56 delegates were male.

Sensibly, the conference offered informative, passive, sessions before lunch. More energetic and interactive workshops took place during the afternoon. Keynote speaker Katherine Zeserson, who is Director of Learning and Participation at The Sage Gateshead, incorporated communal 'loosening up' exercises as part of her opening presentation. Several subsequent presenters also requested this, to an extent that became irritating. But Zeserson was unique in requesting delegates to breathe deeply by shrugging their shoulders to their ears! A few eyebrows were raised, understandably.

However, the energetic Newcastle GP and tutor at Newcastle Medical School Dr Anand, a brilliant choice of speaker, soon had the audience bewitched. His well-received talk on 'Why Singing is Good for Us' incorporated an entertaining collect of aphorisms, including 'smoking is a form of yoga', 'what the mind represses, the body expresses', 'lack of poverty is not richness' and 'cortisol causes wrinkles!' Fascinating here to learn that the heart needs 2.4 watts of power, that 80% of the sensations to the brain come from sound, and that during anaesthesia hearing is the last sense to go.

Susan Hollingworth, music educator and conductor of the training choir of the National Youth Choir of Scotland, told delegates that singing and moving use more of the brain than any other activity. Next, to substantiate the theory, we were treated to a presentation and performance by the Silver Threads, a mixed choir ('performance group') based at the Sage, being part of a music-based daytime curriculum for people over the age of 50. Onstage, from the smartly-dressed Threads various participants stepped forward briefly to speak. Several mentioned that they attended The Sage Gateshead three or four times weekly to participate, the building itself being part of their motivation.

"We wanted to get key people in from health authorities, mental health authorities, or primary care trusts," says Rebecca Pedlow, a former D'Oyly Carte Opera Company professional who is now programme leader for Music Leader North East. "One of the aims was to launch a singing conference that everybody remembers," says Pedlow. "With classes from pre-birth to the Silver Singers, music supports all of these people. This could be an inter-generational project. That's something I want to emphasise."

Pedlow is keen to have the average person understand that they have a choice. "They can go into their GP and ask for this," she says. "Then our activities, rather than being different and separate, become mainstream, part of GP referral programmes."

Pedlow is aware that nationally there are many arts and health activities. One of the themes of this conference was to increase knowledge of such projects. "What's been great about today is that we are now more aware of similar work going on," she says. "We can discover what we can do to support each other's work, so that we work together towards the same goal.

Singer - and former clown - Em Whitfield, who has taught at York University and at Leeds College of Music, hopes that this is the start of a wider acknowledgement of the connection between singing and health. "There's no doubt; it's not about teaching singing; it's not about learning songs," she says. "It's so much more inclusive. It's about people being together, people listening to each other about communicating honestly, about learning to be relaxed, as a skill that is useful in your life."

Rebecca Pedlow now ponders her next step: how to take this forward. "What do we need to do next? How do we get this mainstream? Are we marketing to the right people? Should we be banging on politicians' doors? Should we be lobbying the people in the street? Whether or not we need to run another Sing for Health conference will come out of the evaluation," she says. "Certainly some sort of follow-up will be planned."

So, why not embed Sing for Health into a medical conference? "That's a very good idea," she smiles. "Thank you! Get them all singing."

First published in Music Teacher, June 2007. Reproduced by kind permission.
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