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It’s music to your lungs

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After hearing about singing sessions to manage pulmonary conditions, Paula Browne knew it would work with her patients

The Beatles, Robbie Williams and Adele are probably not the first names that come to mind when you think about treating respiratory diseases. However, they have all been part of a programme offered at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital since May 2012 to do just that.

Led by respiratory nurse specialist Paula Browne, Singing for Breathing is a monthly music programme that helps people with conditions, such as COPD, cope with their breathing difficulties and build confidence.

Ms Browne first heard about Singing for Breathing at a British Lung Foundation conference and knew it could work with her patients. “I thought it was such a brilliant thing to try,” she says.

Singing for Breathing enhances physiotherapeutic support for breathing conditions through informal, enjoyable vocal exercises. Once a month, participants of a variety of ages and backgrounds gather for upper body stretches, vocal exercises and full songs together under Ms Browne’s leadership. They are welcome to sit or stand as needed throughout the session. “The main goal is to be very comfortable and relaxed,” Ms Browne says.

“We sing for about an hour or so when we meet each month. We’ve had the most eclectic mix of music. I typically try to pick songs we can all manage… for example, some Queen numbers are hard to sing in a group,” she adds with a laugh.

Ms Browne thinks one reason Singing for Breathing has been so popular is that it meets an unmet need for music.

“I grew up singing in a choir as a child, and it’s something that I’ve always valued,” she says. “These days, we just aren’t singing much. Overall, we aren’t churchgoers and children don’t really sing hymns at school, so this group has hit the spot for a lot of people.”

The sessions provide a sense of camaraderie for participants as well as physical benefits. Better breath control and diaphragmatic strength are typical results of taking part in the programme.

Many participants have COPD or other airway obstructions and lung cancer in some cases.

“It’s quite beneficial physically,” Ms Browne said. “Working to breathe deeply, hold notes and sing from the diaphragm builds up strength over time. There’s also the endorphin release and ‘feel-good factor’ that comes from singing together as a group.”

Participation in the programme is free because of sponsorship from the Breathe Easy group, of which Ms Browne has been a leader for over 10 years, and other charitable donations. Breathe Easy, which is part of the British Lung Foundation, is a support group for patients with lung diseases. Many patients who come to Breathe Easy have also joined the Singing for Breathing group.

There are no auditions or musical prerequisites for joining the group. “Our motto is ‘sing strong, even if it’s wrong’,” says Ms Browne. “There’s less of a focus on good singing than there is in putting forth effort and singing together. We’re not a choir and we all sing dud notes every now and then!”

She runs Singing for Breathing on a voluntary basis, hosting the sessions on her days off at the hospital, but doesn’t see it as a sacrifice. “I get a lot of enjoyment out of this myself,” she says. “I quite like planning songs for the session and thinking about what we haven’t sung. It’s something I look forward to.”

Ms Browne recalls one man who was unsure about the programme at the start but is now a regular. She says it is this type of experience that keeps her passionate about her work. She says: “He didn’t feel well at all when he first came, but the music really made him feel better and now he never misses a month. Music really can be powerful.”

Rachel Stanback

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