Community Research Summary

By Lucy

I have been singing with My Heart Sings (MHS) / London Women’s Voices (LWV) since MHS started almost 5 years ago. In a city where the choices for leisure time are endless and can feel overwhelming, this space felt unique and just right for me. It has nourished me personally and spiritually, providing a sense of an extended family and connection beyond the scatter gram of friends who it can be difficult to make time for. But more than that, it has always been a source of intellectual or professional inspiration for me as someone who has spent most of my working life in community-based settings. When I began my MA in 2016, in Applied Anthropology and Community Development at Goldsmiths, I thought LWV would be perfect for a placement. Discussion with other women in the group saw the birth of an idea for a small piece of community research.

The time I’ve spent listening and feeding back to self-identifying women in this wonderful circle has been thought-provoking and affirming of the joy and comfort it brings to our lives. Here’s my summary of the research.

4th birthday pic

Women in this group have contributed beautiful words to describe the value that London Women’s Voices and My Heart Sings has brought to their lives.


…it’s a place of sanctuary on a Tuesday evening, it has a positive impact on my life, because of this I feel I’m better resourced for others.”


Between October- December 2017, eight women were interviewed, thirteen women responded to an

womenlikesinging wordle

online survey, and around twelve women were involved in a brainstorm at singing about the highlights of 2017 for the circle. Our singing leader and group founder Shilpa was also interviewed.

These inputs were presented back to women at a community event in January, at Kentish Town City Farm. Themes were developed to support discussion around group sustainability, over reliance on Shilpa, fundraising and inclusive practice within the group.


We also had some lovely Palestinian food made by local Café Palestina, deep listening with Val’s sound healing chimes, and a spooky dark tour of Kentish Town City Farm!

The aims of the research

These were collaboratively decided by a small organizing group within the circle:

  • Develop a shared understanding within the group of what is valued commonly
  • Support the resilience and sustainability of this group

How much the community means to me, to my wellbeing (mental, emotional, physical), to my sense of belonging in this huge city, and because I love the songs and style of learning them together.”


How well did we meet the aims of the community research?

  1. Develop a shared understanding of what is commonly valued

Certain themes were very clear from the research process.

Acceptance and non-judgment

Universally valued amongst this group is the feeling of acceptance, non-judgment, celebrating diversity, women only space and a sense of community in an otherwise often hostile London environment.

“Diversity is great, it’s boring when everyone is the same”

“I feel very accepted by other people in the group. In other groups, I’ve never had that experience of feeling so accepted for me, being me is ok”


Singing, stories, self-care

Women love the singing and connection to song, struggle and history through unpacking the meanings and origins of songs. Many have found the breathing and self-care techniques useful in their lives, especially when facing hardship or challenges.

“….it has given me solace in times of stress and heartbreak and grief.”

“It provides a sense of your own self-worth, and your own value outside of that kind of dominant culture.”

“…in terms of creativity, it offers me a chance to make something beautiful with a room full of amazing women.”

Activism, inclusivity and dialogue

Other common – but not as universal – themes addressed the political nature of the space, the possibility (in some ways untapped) for dialogue and understanding between women of different backgrounds, the desire for more activism, a wish to see further efforts to include marginalized women.

“LWV has also stimulated a lot of really healthy self-reflection for me about the ways in which I can show up more meaningfully for women from marginalised communities and identities.”

ano world is possible


  1. Support the resilience and sustainability of the group

A significant minority of women identified a concern in survey and interview responses, about our over-reliance on Shilpa, the financial sustainability of the group and some expressed desire for more self-organising or a more democratic structure.

“In terms of sustainability I think it’d be great if we could get some funding, to make sure we can cover the rent, and pay Shilpa properly, and give us the opportunity to do more gigs outside which will build our profile and let more people know about us.”


“I enjoy everything about the group – I am welcomed and so are other people. It’s still a little

Shilpa led despite attempts to change that. If Shilpa left, it would cease. But maybe this is what people need, for someone else to hold it all together, so that they don’t have to because life outside of the group demands so much from them. I certainly feel like that most times. On the other hand, I recognise that it takes away something if it’s not a genuine collective effort.”

“I would love for a self organising group to emerge, where other connecting activities take place. For example, different people could organise self-care days, baby sitting clubs, carer club…Basically a hub of love and care that is everyone’s responsibility but not a burden”


Many women were either happy with the structure as it is, or weren’t exactly sure of the structure.

Below are some fledgling ideas and energy which emerged at our community event, which could go some way to address these concerns. However, these would require further energy and enthusiasm from the group. For example…

Fundraising ideas

  • Patron accounts
  • Crowd funding
  • Grant applications

Constituting the group

Becoming a voluntary association would allow us to open a bank account and raise funds for trips, subsidies for women on low or no incomes, or other activities we want to do as a group. Currently it is unclear whether the energy within the group is available to do this, and/ or what the aims would be going forward.

What else has emerged from the research?

  • Race dialogue

Most women who participated in the research identified racial / ethnic diversity as an important experience of this group – some simply celebrated that as a good thing, others took it a little further.

“It’s really helpful that the group is led by a Woman of Colour, as it signals that the space is built and created for every type of woman”.

shilpa nanboy

Three women described this group as anti-oppressive, in the way that it works to center the experiences of women of color, but this was not always recognized or fully understood.

“The only moment I felt a bit uncomfortable was a discussion on a group for women of colour where I felt excluded as a white woman…”

Some women showed an interest in race dialogue from the perspective of white women wanting to explore and deconstruct conditioning in a racist society, to explore blind spots and enable more deep listening to the experiences of women of color. A possible future aim could be to facilitate a ‘fishbowl’ discussion on race, where white women are invited to listen to women of color who would like to speak about their experiences.

A selection of reading on topics of intersectionality, race, racism, white supremacy and gender has been jointly collected for women in the group to access via google documents. We invite all women in the group to use and contribute to this.

  • Inclusion of trans-women

Issues around trans-inclusivity have been heard, discussed and somewhat addressed through more frequent and explicit reference to the ‘self-identifying’ nature of women’s participation.

  • Shy-ness during the break

Some women identified difficulties feeling comfortable during the break. Efforts have been made to create a quiet or creative corner to support women who need time out from chatting. This requires ongoing efforts from the group if it continues to be useful.

A whole-hearted thank you from Lucy, to all the women who participated. I really enjoyed listening to and reflecting upon your experiences, it was an honour and a privilege. I hope you enjoyed it too.

If you’d be happy to provide feedback (positive, constructive, all welcome) on the research outcomes, or your experience of participating, I’d be very grateful as it all contributes to my learning going forward. Feel free to speak to me directly, email me on  

 If you are interested in reading my 3000 word report which I submitted to Goldsmiths I’d be very happy to share it.

By Shilpa

2017 is coming to an end. Looking back, I feel the warmth of the women in the Tuesday night singing circle, warm hazy memories of a summer picnic with them on Hampstead Heath and a successful Self-Care/Community Care event as the nights drew in in October. The singers in the Lambeth and Southwark Singing for Better Breathing groups went from strength to strength and the final report of the research project led by the Sidney de Haan research centre was launched at the Southbank Centre in June. Memorable ‘My Heart Sings’ moments also include:

However 2017’s most memorable moments for me were the ones with Celia.

Celia Regan first sang with the Tuesday night women’s circle in June and came regularly since. She was a warm, bold presence in the group. Her request to sing ‘Rolling on the river’ turned into a long group improvised piece which brought lots of smiles.She took a rose home from the centre one week, delighting in its scent. She gave hugs generously and I loved hearing her loud swearing and animated stories a few times. She was refreshingly authentic. Her daughter Imogen is similarly authentic, bold and big-hearted. Celia wrote empowering and life-affirming poems (see pic below), ran a successful landscape gardening business and loved being in nature. Her spirit was a free, wild one and her love of life was contagious.

Later in the summer, we found out about Celia’s illness and it became more apparent that her health was deteriorating. Celia slept more, the last couple of times she attended, dozing as we sang. I love that she found our warm ups funny and she particularly laughed loud at the Baka song Boomalena (‘my heart is happy’) – especially the loud call used to gather everyone with a firm ‘hmmmm.’

She recently visited her beloved Scotland for the last time with her daughter Imogen. Her friends Tumu and Anna were amazing supporting Celia to be there singing with us. She came to singing up until 10th October, when she determinedly attended in a wheelchair. Tumu, Jatu, Anna and I sang with Celia and her friends and family in the hospice a couple of times. The songs we sang celebrated friendship, community, love and love of nature – all of which Celia flowed in abundance with. We sang short, repetitive songs… as the songs flowed, we noticed they created space for feelings to be felt. Recordings of the singing were played for Celia when we weren’t there in person. Thanks to those who supported and mentored me to hold the circle during this time – Mum/Tina, Jaya, Beverly, Frankie and other NVPN elders and particularly dear Abi.

Celia passed away on 12th November, surrounded by her daughter and friends. She was buried under a beautiful Hornbeam tree in Epping Forest.

In remembrance, one singer said ‘Celia had a warm soul that resonated out, though I knew her very little I could feel it. What an honour it was to have her presence with us towards the end of her life.’ Another said ‘Celia, I enjoyed sitting next to you at singing a lot and delighted in your energy. Thank you for sharing precious time and space with me. May your spirit be well, happy, free from suffering and at true peace’.

Thank you Celia for sharing the end of your journey with our circle. You gave us so many precious moments. Thank for sharing your courage and vulnerability with us and for allowing us to hold space for you. It was a gift for us in so many ways. In the way you and your loved ones faced death, you really showed us how to live. We miss you and will continue to sing for you x

Here’s to breathing and singing together in ways which warm, heal, strengthen and liberate, in 2018. And lots more laughs.


One of Celia’s life-affirming and empowering poems on the Order of Service at Celia’s funeral

groupSummer picnic on Hampstead Heath – Celia is 6th from left with a white shirt and navy trousers


Our ‘Dark Nights, Bright Lights’ event – Open Mic, discussion, singing and food.. all themed on self-care / community care

Southbank Centre, June 2017 – launch of the Lambeth and Southwark Singing for Better Breathing report with groups from Rotherhithe, East Dulwich, Streatham and Clapham joined by groups from around the country. A brilliant, and poignant, day soon after the violent attacks at London Bridge and Finsbury Park mosque.

Some thoughts after a sad day today offered here. I would love to hear what has helped you.

Sometimes, things are quiet. And that’s OK.

Last Tuesday’s women’s singing circle was a quiet one. A number in the group said their energy was low. A few are having a really tough time with personal or work circumstances. We spent a little longer before singing on gentle movement, breathing together, doing a circle check-in for everyone to share something about their day. At times the quiet felt pensive and restless. At times it felt peaceful and soft. 
I noticed my own response as a facilitator. Sometimes I relaxed into the quietness and responded to affirm and support it. At times I experienced some darts of self doubt – is this OK or is it my job to animate, energise, cheer the group? In Western city culture, the energy of excitement and ‘doing’ has higher status than the energy of relaxation, of letting go. Sometimes quiet means sitting with things that might feel uncomfortable. We stay busy, planning the next moment. A few times an anxiety about conforming to this norm swept over me – shouldn’t I be doing something about this quiet?
What helped was breathing out slowly and feeling my sitting bones on the chair and my feet on the floor. Noticing the sensations in the back of my body. And then sharing how I felt with the group, asking for anyone to share their observations. The response was interesting – 
‘I’m enjoying just being here’. 
‘I appreciate it to be honest.. this is the only group I go to where it feels OK to be a bit quiet sometimes’
‘I didn’t notice anything amiss, different sessions feel different and that’s just how it is’. 
As the group gently affirmed me and each other, a sort-of-melting occurred. We sang a very beautiful and energised Bread and Roses to finish to mark May Day and I went home feeling all jumbled up, in a good way.
Quietness has been a theme for me in recent months. I’ve spent more time in solitude and I’ve learnt to cherish it. A long spell in India over the winter gave more insight into family history and perspective, offering rich learning and healing. Losing a dear family member earlier this year needed time to reflect with gratitude on this short and wonderful life and relationships we have been graced with. I have spent less time with a computer (as you can tell from a lack of recent blog posts). And more time in nature and with loved ones.
A teacher at a recent meditation retreat offered a metaphor which captivated me. She spoke of water evaporating from the leaves of trees. It is the vacuum which draws up new water, new life, new energy into the tree through the roots and trunk. Perhaps when we let go, when we allow quiet, we create space for new energy and new life to flow in.
Sometimes, things are quiet. And that’s OK. For those of us wanting to build more peace, beauty, love and justice in the world, maybe we can experiment with stopping and emptying sometimes. There is beauty in struggle, and there is beauty in slowing and resting too. 

Today it is three years since the Tuesday night Women’s Circle started! With London Women’s Voices.

We celebrated on Tuesday – delicious food (including homemade Pumpkin muffins), civil rights anthems, heart-filling harmonies, an improvisation blending lines from our favourite tunes and a new and very silly mash up of our feminist A Whole New World and Chaiyya Chaiyya.

Then Diwali lights, a blessing tree, and some skipping! N’s ‘yard’ sale raised cash for the next Movement for Justice demo at Yarls Wood Immigration detention centre. 

See the pics below – spot the blessing leaf by our newest 7 year old member. And yes we are pretending to be on a magic carpet/top of a train in one of them.

A big thank you to everyone who has helped the circle to keep going for three years – all the wonderful women and children who come to sing (and share food, put away chairs, wash up, help with organising…. the under-staed nitty gritty of being a community). Plus the team at St Luke’s Community Centre including Keren, Pat and the welcoming reception team. And  thank you to everyone who has sent encouragement and support over the past three years.

The next monthly circle is on Tuesday 6th December, 6.30-8.30pm. New singers always warmly welcome!





By Shilpa. This report-back style blog may be of interest to Community Arts and Health Practitioners and anyone who has experienced the health and wellbeing benefits of singing, dancing, art, poetry!

‘As he embraced poetry, he embraced a connection with others and himself’

‘I self-medicate through art’

‘Singing has reduced my use of inhaled steroids by 50%’

This week I went along to a Roundtable meeting in the houses of parliament organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Arts, Health and wellbeing. I was invited by my colleague on the Singing for Better Breathing project Lizzi Stephens, who was to be speaking about the Singing for COPD groups she leads in Kent. The APPG is conducting these meetings to collect collect evidence towards its inquiry into how arts interventions can support health and wellbeing in the UK more systematically.

The majority of speakers shared stories of innovation, creativity and tremendous impact on health and wellbeing outcomes. There was some time for discussion about how to drive this agenda forward. The meeting was chaired by Baroness Lola Young of Hornsey, who has a background in the arts herself. She skilfully wove the conversation together, drawing our key learnings from each presentation.

Amal Azuddin from the Scottish Mental Health Foundation in Glasgow spoke about how the refugee women she works with are sharing their stories of pre-migration trauma, migration and the ‘mental torture’ of the asylum system in the UK. After initial scepticism (‘art is for children, not us!’), they have woven these stories into beautiful pennants, which have been collected and exhibited in libraries and museums. The exhibition has had a deep impact in bringing to light the experiences of these women – viewers report feeling ashamed that our country treats refugees in this way and want to help change things. She concluded that this is a crucial lifeline for many participants and that better funding streams are needed for this work – a comment echoed by a number of other speakers.

My colleague Lizzi powerfully shared how singing has helped her manage her COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder), which has reduced her lung function by around 50%. Regular singing (she runs six groups a week!) has helped her reduce her dependency on inhaled steroids and helping her control her breath to give her better lung function. Regular group singing has been proven to support lung function in clinically significant tests. Lizzi told the meeting about her choirs and about the Singing for Better Breathing project in Lambeth and Southwark and shared testimonies from her choir members – ‘singing has literally been the light at the end of my tunnel, it gives me something to live for’.

Phillip Davenport from Arthur and Martha spoke about the Homeless Library project in Manchester, where people tell their personal and emotional histories through art and poetry, which they say ‘brings joy and brings insight’ to the homeless people they work with. They recognise that self-expression is one of our deepest human needs – it defines our identity and it allows us to grow and change. One of their participants with a history of childhood abuse said writing poetry has ‘put me back on the ladder of life’.

Sheryl Cotto and Thomson Hall from Action Space in London told stories of using the visual arts to support and empower disabled people with different kinds of needs. Thomson, one of the artists, said he realised that ‘art is my calling in life’. He drew admiration from the room when he told us he has held two exhibitions of his work in Brighton and Glasgow. Sheryl questioned how the artists can earn some money through their art work without losing their care packages.

Eva Okwonga from Music in Mind courageously shared how music has supported her to improve her mental health. How both she and the people she works with experience a sense of growth and ‘I can do this!’ strength through developing their musical skills and performing. She stressed the empowering potential of Mind and Music’s Peer Support approach – if the person working with you has been on a similar journey, it can be easier to connect with and trust that worker.

Some of the key threads I noticed through these stories:

Holistic working – all of the stories we hard acknowledged that people are emotional, spiritual, social and intellectual beings. Not just physical bodies/machines to be repaired.

Story-telling – A number of the projects emphasised the importance of being able to process  emotions and tell your story to the wellbeing of us individually and as a community. Bearing witness to each other’s stories says ‘I am important. You are important. We are worth something’ – which is so important when we live in a neoliberal regime that does not value our full human worth.

Trauma recovery –If you have experienced trauma, the impact lives on at the physiological and emotional level and can be an underlying contributing factor to many health conditions. It’s clear that a number of the projects are supporting people to heal from trauma. This is a key theme for My Heart Sings work (eg working with women in prison and in detention centres).

Community – almost every project worked with groups, not just individuals. And connection with others is central to the work they do. It is clear in the community work that I do that to be heard, accepted and encouraged by a group of peers has great healing potential itself.

Transformational impact – testimony after testimony showed this is working! Lives are being changed. Often in a much more cost effective and lasting way than prescribing drugs or other mainstream health interventions.

Equality and Justice – Most of the projects worked with people who are marginalised in current UK society – disabled people, refugees and asylum seekers, homeless people, young or older people – building resilience, capacity and voice. And being visible and heard, taking up space instead of being passed over. It seemed very clear to me that this work is not just about healthy individuals but about changing how we relate to one another – with a potential for more respectful, equal communities.

Resource scarcity – every project demonstrated creating huge change, often for people who most need it. Yet almost everyone referred to funding shortages and other difficulties such as having to jump through complicated hoops for funders.

Further comments and discussion then took place on the need to make the Arts more of a mainstream health intervention.

Deborah from the National Alliance for Arts, health and wellbeing said that any effort to drive the arts and health agenda forward will be on a scale from ‘tinkering’ to ‘radical’. She suggested that the arts have the potential to help sick people ‘become fully human again’ and argued we should be radical, campaigning for 0.1 % of the health budget to be spent on arts interventions.

A few people from Public Health England spoke. Louisa Newman and Shona Arora, both working in workforce development, spoke of the need to strengthen skills in this area, to help practitioners innovate and evaluate well. Richard Parish spoke of the arts as an important vaccine for facing life. Catherine Swann recognised that beyond the health agenda, these kinds of arts interventions can change communities and tackle social inequality by building social capital. She asked the room ‘how can we be more strategic about our impact – where do we start focussing our energy?

A number of people both around the roundtable and in the audience spoke of the barrier of culture – those with the money just don’t get the importance of this agenda! Perhaps things like singing and art don’t seem serious enough to them? Perhaps they are too much outside their comfort zones? How can we change this?

At this point the meeting felt quite heavy and less hopeful. My colleague Lizzi and I  led a short call and response song, introduced with an invitation to notice our feet, ground ourselves and release the shoulders with a long out-breath. The room sounded wonderful! Even in a House of Lords Committee room, a participative experience can help change the energy and remind us of our strengths.

The meeting ended with positive suggestions for what next. Priorities suggested include

  • Continuing to build the evidence base showing that arts interventions work! This is what the Singing for Better Breathing project that I run groups for in Lambeth is doing – testing to see the impact that singing has on lung function and sense of wellbeing
  • Use this evidence to convince policy makers. But also be more creative – draw on our considerable creative talents to communicate our agenda persuasively. We need to accept that there is an element of educational work to be done so policy makers feel confident to support. This GP training project by Vivien Ellis was mentioned.
  • Map stakeholders and those with influence. And think strategically about who and how to connect with them
  • Baroness Young shared the example of a ‘Reframing Justice’ workshop she had recently attended exploring how to transform the way the criminal justice system is thought about. She proposed that re-framing this debate (using different language, images, metaphors to help combat myths and create different discourse) could help us be more persuasive. How do we show that the people and art discussed has value, is really worth something? One suggestion was to be bold and take it into mainstream big galleries to make more of an impact (on the participants and on the audiences)
  • Set up ways to help practitioners replicate good practice happening across the country
  • It was noted that there is a huge difference in the impact of consuming or participating in the arts. On the way out of the room, I was inspired by a participant’s suggestion of a Arts and Health and wellbeing showcase inside the Houses of Parliament, inviting MPs and policy makers to taste some of the activities the projects offer.

You can see the full notes of the APPG meetings and contact them via their website. The more of us involved, the more powerful we are. Information about the inquiry that all this evidence will be collated for is here.



Me, Eva and Lizzi outside. #ParliamentSelfie

By Shilpa

Yesterday’s Million Women Rise march in London was phenomenal. It’s an annual march organised by Sabrina and a small team of dedicated volunteers, aiming to stop gendered violence against women and children.

Thousands of women, including loads of Black and Brown women, occupying the central shopping thoroughfare Oxford Street with our bodies, voices and drums. Shoppers looking confused, bemused or curious. A buzzy energy in the air that made my hands and head tingle. I normally feel the cold, but yesterday I didn’t. So many women with tears in their eyes. The march organisers chanted with loud strong voices and we echoed their words right back. A Latin American drumming group led the way. I marched next to Tobi, who was carrying her curious and super sharp 2-yr old daughter on her back – she heard the singing, looked around for a while, then was lulled to sleep immediately by thousands of aunties acting with the wish that her generation won’t have reason to march in this way.

My Heart Sings women rushed ahead at the end to get to the rally at Trafalgar Square and sing songs of strength and togetherness to welcome the marchers in. Obscure, pendatic bullying by council officials and intrusive filming of the event, clamping down on most of the musical contributions, stopped us (and others) from singing then.

Collective singing and other forms of music as part of protest is extremely, potently, powerful (think of the anti-Apartheid and US Civil Rights eras) – it’s clever for authorities to limit the amount of music in protests.
So when we heard the march was around the corner, we didn’t sing, we chanted.. Standing shoulder to shoulder on the small stage with a LOUD sound system, with other singers, led by the march organisers…. Power to the Women! Women got the Power! Sister can you feel it! It’s getting stronger by the hour! POWER!

Then the long yellow and black banner and loads of red t-shirts, coats, hats, scarfs, exhilarated faces and placards appeared in front of the National Gallery. Just at that moment the sun came out and time stretched for a moment.. It felt like a huge, love-filled conquering army of powerful women, being welcomed home. They stopped, chanting and drumming, a call and response from either end of Trafalgar Square. Then this sea of red, black, brown, white, spilled into the square and formed a mass to listen to the speakers.


The speakers were a blend of angry, rousing, loving, mournful and full of grace. Some spoke of very local London women’s projects, others from places like the DRC and Iran. The connection between violence against women and the treatment of women asylum seekers held in detention centres such as Yarls Wood was made clear, especially by Antonia from Movement for Justice. She encouraged everyone to join the mass protest at Yarl’s Wood next Saturday 12th March. Surround #YarlsWood demonstration: Detention Centres SHUT THEM DOWN!

British Sign Language interpreters signed every single speech for the audience. The fabulous Christina, the one singer who was allowed a slot, generously agreed to let us share it. We mashed up Lean on Me with Bollywood classic Yeh Dosti (This Friendship) and you can hear the end of it on Million Women Rise’s video below. I saw women joining in, and my heart melted to see two young South Asian Women hugging each other, rocking and singing Yeh Dosti to each other.


A few years ago, I went through a phase of feeling quite jaded about protest – they happen, they finish, they’re negative, the usual suspects attend and the people who need to hear don’t want to listen…. However, recent protests, particularly those by Movement for Justice and this one (which centre the leadership of those most affected by the issues, rather than claim to speak for them), have reminded me of the potential to build cross-movement connections. And the potential for building confidence and voices.

I think women attending, including me and the other singers, left the day feeling a few inches taller, with broader shoulders, grounded feet and a sense of being part of a wider community. This is a huge achievement and Million Women Rise and partners should be commended. In a world where all the mainstream patriarchal messages tell women we are valued for our looks, bodies, politeness, domestic and child-rearing duties, and ability to accept suffering quietly, it is revolutionary work to create a day where women of all hues and ages can express anger, sadness, power and hope and really be heard and validated.

2015 was a year of trying new things and building confidence for My Heart Sings. About exploring and raising voices. About developing a clearer understanding of what the ‘My Heart Sings’ approach really is and how we can transform society through singing together. And of course sharing lots of great songs, tea and excellent baked goods!



‘My Heart Sings’ describes community singing circles lead by me (Shilpa), for mostly women. It also describes the unique approach to community singing I’m developing together with the women I sing with. Singing to release the natural, uninhibited voice, with mindfulness of breathing and movement, rooted in community development practice and intersectional feminism.

This is a long blog – unusually and unashamedly so. Singing and community development work in the My Heart Sings way is an oral tradition. As are many traditions in which women come together. Yet history is dominated by the written word, as is academia and the media today. And these words are mostly of and about the achievements of men. Not so much about nurses, teachers, artists, social workers, carers, mothers, activists and volunteers who come together to sing.

These words – and this blog more generally – are written to commemorate the hearts, minds and voices of a bunch of extraordinary women (and a few children), in the hope that these Little Big things become part of Herstory. And help us connect across time and geography with other women coming together to be, flourish and build community and voice. If you and your women’s group are doing, or want to do similar work, do get in touch.

Thank you to everyone who brought their voices to My Heart Sings in 2015. Thank you to partner organisations and to those women who have supported, mentored, encouraged and the children who have energised workshops. And to all my teachers who shared on learning as part of an ongoing chain of song, breath, body and women’s work, passing down the generations.



Tuesday Night Women’s Circle

The My Heart Sings weekly women’s circle met at St Lukes throughout the year. The circle continues to extraordinary women – they are often change-makers in their families, communities, organisations or through their projects; challengers and innovators. With big hearts and a strong understanding about the connection between singing, wellbeing, resilience and building strength.

In 2015 we took a deeper focus on breathing – mindfulness of the breath, understanding how our breath is linked to our emotions and exploring how we can breathe more fully and in a way that supports our voices. Singers also practised grounding and opening the posture, releasing our natural voices. And developing gentleness in how we treat ourselves. The songs we sang we a real mix, from spirituals and Civil Rights anthems, to Bollywood, to folk songs from around the British Isles. The most exciting development was that many singers shared songs – from their childhood, country of origin, favourite song that meant something to them currently or one that they had written themselves. Of course we had fun arranging these and mashing them up to forge new creations too.



Special events

In March, our International Women’s Day sing in Dalston,  joining up with Emashi, was a lot of fun and supportive of the staff of Latin American Women’s Aid as they campaigned to stop the closure of their women’s refuge in London.

Working with CADFA, the group hosted 25 young women from Palestine for an evening of sharing songs, stories from Palestine, ideas of Palestine Solidarity, dance (from traditional Dabke dance to Bollywood to THIS, led expertly by Karen). The stories shared by our guests about life under occupation and the beautiful songs sang sparked tears and anger and a desire to take action. We were asked to speak with others about the situation in Palestine as much as possible, from friends and family to colleagues to MPs. And to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. Mary, a travelling elder of the group and a lifetime Palestine Solidarity campaigner, added words of encouragement via Skype from South Africa.


Songm story and dance evening with guests from Palestine


The gift of sharing a song


Part of the buffet (those who eat/sing together, stay together!)


Obligatory selfie before dancing


We had a lot of support from Keren, Lavinia, Patrick, Deniz, Kelley, Fiona and others at St Lukes, our wonderful community centre venue over the year. As one way of saying Thank You the women’s circle lead singing workshops and big finale group sings at the Fizzfest community festival in June and at the World Mental Health Day festival in October. We especially enjoyed working with Key Changes, an organisation supporting positive mental health through music. We hope some of the artists they work with will be joining our circle to share some of their songs with us (especially Nicci and her feminist anthem Queen of Everything!). The Fizzfest fell on the same day as a mass demonstration at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention centre –the highlight of the day was getting 100 people singing Labi Siffre’s Something Inside So Strong in solidarity with the demonstrators and women fighting for freedom inside the centres.



Key Changes Open mic stage attracts an array of local talent


Some of the women continued to develop ways to bring singing into social justice activism, particularly on issues affecting the most marginalised women – immigration detention, domestic violence, racist police brutality. 15 singers attended powerful protests at Yarls Wood and Harmondsworth detention centres, organised by Movement for Justice. Teju, Natasha and Steph, three Black women in the group who are leaders and full of courage, organised a singing vigil outside the US embassy after the racist murders in Charleston. It was hugely well attended and was beautifully organised, bringing together songs, poems and chanting – a blend of anger and love, open hearts and voices. Commemorating each of the people who lost their lives in this way created an unusually nourishing and soothing, yet immensely powerful event. They then went on to sing Ella’s Song at the Remembering Olive Morris rally a few days later.


Vigl for victoms of the racist massacre in Charleston

charleston placards


rembering OM

Natasha, Steph and Tej singing Ella’s Song the the Remembering Olive Morris rally

The women in the group also donated £400 between us to support Movement for Justice, practical supplies for migrants in Calais, Latin American Women’s Aid and a women’s group supported by CADFA in Palestine.

Little Big Things

The sense of community in the group continued to grow – a special blog celebrated this on the Tuesday circle’s second birthday. Singers supported each other through moving jobs, bad health, family bereavements. We celebrated birthdays, a solo gig by our own Steph who sings with Big Joanie and a couple of weddings. A notable Tuesday night circle after the election in May saw the mood shift from depressed to angry to steely resolve in 90 minutes flat.


Steph’s solo gig rocked!

It was decided to form a constituted group – called London Women’s Voices. A committee (Day, Habiba, Lucy, Mary, Meg, Natasha, Nutan) has boldly come together to steer the group’s activities. There are plans to adapt the format of Tuesday night circles and other activities in 2016, to encompass the idea of building voice more generally (think spoken word, storytelling, dance, etc) – watch this space.

After discussions about tackling racism in 2014, a number of Women of Colour in the group came together to organise safe spaces in which to share experiences of oppression and support each other. This connection has evolved over time and singers have reached out to others (including Women of Colour attending Jilly’s excellent inclusive Yoga classes) to create a regular informal supportive meet-up currently dubbed ‘Survive and Thrive’.

After a busy year, the group’s focus turned more inwards as winter set in, with a focus on self-care and gentleness towards as the days got shorter. We saw a notable increase in home-baked treats and sofa-naps-during-singing during a time that many of us find difficult.



Ali presents her banana/mango/berry cake tower for the triplet’s 6th birthday



Shilpa’s work with Singing for Better Breathing

I ran weekly singing workshops for people with chronic breathing problems as part of a research programme called Singing for Better Breathing led by the Sidney de Haan centre. The research is exploring the impact that regular group singing can have on lung function. This little film explains it best. I have enjoyed singing with groups of positive, fun, mostly older people in Lambeth and Southwark and seeing how singing is making a difference for them – ‘ I walked in the park for the first time in five years after singing last week!’. I learnt a lot about better breathing over the year, in a way that’s relevant for all, not just people with a breathing condition. I’ve particularly appreciated working alongside and learning with the inspiring Guillermo and Phoene in this role.



The Surrey Docks Sing for Better Breathing group



Other My Heart Sings projects in 2015

2015 started with a bang, getting 30 civil servants at Her Majesty’s Treasury singing together as part of their Mental Wellbeing week. There was definitely some trepidation at the start (what? She’s asking us to swing our arms around and make weird noises?!) but everyone was soon singing and dancing with ease.

Tuesday evening Singers Day, Katie, Nutan and Mary and attended an academic symposium on the role of choirs in creating belonging in communities. The day was filled with interesting presentations, particularly the inspiring and deeply radical Reverend June Boyce-Tilman who uses singing to build multi-faith community and Dominc Stichbury from the Chaps Choir.

I spoke on one of the panels about why I started My Heart Sings and how I believe community singing can challenge inequality and transform society. Day, Katie, Nutan and Mary spoke about their experience of attending the Tuesday circle and how they feel singing can support individuals and communities. One of the organisers wrote an event summary here. My favourite sentence: ‘To my astonishment, Shilpa managed to get the entire symposium on their feet, waving their arms like a trunk of an elephant and singing in unison.


Elephants in the attic


I also piloted workshops with women at a number of women’s organisations, including Women and Girls Network and the women’s wing at Peterborough Prison (with Trishna Shah, a write up is Gal-Dem magazine is here).


Wishlist for 2016:

Last year took My Heart Sings along lots of exciting paths and flows. Here are six of my wishes for 2016, shared in the hope that anyone reading who wants to work together is inspired to get in touch.

  1. For the Tuesday night women’s circle held by London Women’s Voices to grow stronger. And generally more My Heart Sings opportunities to bring women together to breathe, sing, and be. I have been awarded a small amount of funding from the Network for Social Change to develop My Heart Sings to do more of this work in 2016, particularly with grassroots organisations working with groups fighting marginalisation and oppression.
  2. Start a new women’s singing circle in Tottenham, where some Tuesday evening singers and I have run some pilot workshops. I’m looking for a local community organisation and venue to anchor this group.
  3. Create learning and mentoring opportunities for experienced or aspiring singing leaders who want to learn from the My Heart Sings approach
  4. Some instruments for workshops – a few drums and other fun percussion. And a heartfelt dream to get hold of one of these. I experienced the immense healing and soothing powers of a sounding bowl a while back and would love to offer this to women in these workshops. Anyone got £3000-£4000 spare?
  5. A series of workshops or conference about self-love and self-care for women who are active on social justice issues, particularly migrant rights, gender-based violence, Palestine and Mental health (issues chosen last year because of the disproportional impact on women).
  6. Create a short film showing off this work – an awesome feminist film-maker looking for an interesting project is needed!


Are you/your group interested in working together on any of these goals? Please get in touch if you are, it would be wonderful to hear from you.


A moment of gratitude

By Shilpa


“There is a tendency to want to hurry from autumn to spring, to avoid the long dark days that winter brings. Many people do not like constant days bereft of light and months filled with colder temperatures. They struggle with the bleakness of land and the emptiness of trees. Their eyes and hearts seek color. Their spirits tire of tasting the endless gray skies. There is great rejoicing in the thought that light and warmth will soon be filling more and more of each new day.

“But winter darkness has a positive side to it. [Let us] recognize and honor the beauty in the often unwanted season of winter. Let us invite our hearts to be glad for the courage winter proclaims. Let us be grateful for the wisdom winter brings in teaching us about the need for withdrawal as an essential part of renewal. Let us also encourage our spirits as Earth prepares to come forth from this time of withdrawal into a season filled with light.

“The winter solstice celebrates the return of hope to our land as our planet experiences the first slow turn toward greater daylight. Soon we will welcome the return of the sun and the coming of springtime. As we do so, let us remember and embrace the positive, enriching aspects of winter’s darkness. Pause now to sit in silence in the darkness of this space. Let this space be a safe enclosure of creative gestation for you.”

From “A Celebration of Winter Solstice” from The Circle of Life by Joyce Rupp and Macrina Wiederkehr.


Solstice self-care
We made a pact last Tuesday to do something restful and fun just for ourselves for the Solstice (we didn’t quite spit on it, but it was serious nonetheless).

Also, remember we all have tools to help us when if things are feeling a bit too overwhelming this festive season, for whatever reason.

1) Our breath  – specifically a long relaxing out-breath – can drain the tension of a moment. If in doubt, breathe out! It can help others too, especially children (‘let’s all take a big belly breath and then pretend we are blowing bubbles…’)


2) Grounding – spreading the toes and feeling our feet on the earth. Or the chair beneath us. Let the feeling bring us back to the present moment.

3) Songs – keep singing your favourites. Especially together with others. Sometimes songs can help a feeling flow through us, rather than weighing us down.


And time with other amazing women is one of the best things to help keep us well, energised and strong. More of that in singing circles in 2016!



We’ve been singing this – enjoy!



‘She who can love both sun and moon
Joyful in both seed and bloom
Sound and silence
Dark and light
has nothing to fear from the long winter’s night’



(Listen here)

Last week the My Heart Sings Tuesday night women’s circle celebrated its second birthday. Two years of weekly meet-ups to stop, breathe and sing. Two years of meeting passionate, big-hearted and fun women from across London and sharing tea, snacks, stories and giggles.

There’s plenty of big stuff to look back at – how our sound has developed, the events we’ve sung at since that big flashmob at the Royal Festival Hall for International Women’s Day last year, the protests we’ve taken part in and added music to, the time 11 of us got in a minibus and went to Wales for a music festival.

On Tuesday, as we celebrated with cake, I chose to draw attention to some of the details of how this group of women (and children) who were mostly strangers to each other function together as a singing community. While acknowledging that not everything’s always perfect, a list of things I’m grateful for wrote itself as I spoke:

The way that new singers are noticed and made a bee-line for in the tea-break, usually by Karen, Nutan, Lucy or Ama.

The easy banter and kind support from the lovely Levinia and Patrick at reception at our community centre.

The washing up of dozens of tea cups, including those left over by the Over 55’s group who use our room before us.

How the tables, chairs and sofas are moved into a circle and magically slotted back at the end, in the way we know the Over 55’s like it.

The way that Sara has watered the sometimes-flagging array of houseplants in our room every week.

The tea made for each other and the snacks brought to share, ranging from home-made cakes (often still warm, from Ali!) to sliced fruit to a huge freshly baked focaccia on one memorable evening.

The way that the children who come become part of the group, sharing cuddles with, or offered snacks by, their dozens of ‘aunties’. And teaching us to ‘whip, whip/nae nae’ in the tea break.

The hugs offered to those who have had a rubbish day or who are feeling fragile. The candles lit for birthdays.

The songs shared with the group – from countries of birth, childhood or school. Especially the songs Sade writes.

The curious and often generous chats across differences of age, race, country of birth, sexual orientation, profession – which sometimes feel a bit clunky or effortful, but can bring learning for us all.

The way that lifts or accompaniment to the bus stop are offered, especially when dark or cold.

These things may seem small. They are in fact Little-Big things, which matter in a city where the fast pace leaves us feeling constantly anxious about the next thing to do, and where so many feel isolated. We can weave a thread of connection, patch-working together moments of comfort, understanding, laughter and hope.

A Little-Big thank you, to all you amazing women and children – whether you’ve sung with us once or every week, wherever you are now. ‘Little’ because I know you’re just being you and you’d say it’s no big deal. ‘Big’ because you just being you brings light and warmth to the world – and the power of that cannot be understated.


Spire made of candles - low view

“Whether we learn how to love ourselves and others will depend on the presence of a loving environment. Self-love cannot flourish in isolation.” – Bell Hooks