By Shilpa

Writer and singer Stephanie Phillips recently wrote a fabulous article on The F-Word about the benefits she has experienced from singing with My Heart Sings.

Steph interviewed me prior to writing the article. Her questions and my replies are a good first blog and introduction to My Heart Sings.

Steph: Why did you start My Heart Sings?

Shilpa: I loved singing Bollywood songs and Kylie tracks as a child. But, like many people, I grew up believing ‘I can’t sing’. In my early 20’s I took a leap and joined a community singing group. We created beautiful harmonies together and it felt exhilarating. I came away feeling relaxed and stronger.

Bernice Johnson Reagon from the wonderful all-women singing group Sweet Honey In the Rock said, ‘to this day, I don’t understand how people think they can bring anybody together without a song.’

I’ve seen how singing can help individuals and groups – there is a sense of personal growth and wellbeing which can spill into every-day life and work. I started My Heart Sings to bring women together to create more of that magic for ourselves.

Steph: Could you tell us more about the physical / mental health benefits people can gain from singing?

Shilpa: I am trained in the Natural Voice method of song-leading, which incorporates movement of the body and breathing into singing work. Singing can help to relax tense muscles and build core strength. We do gentle physical and breathing exercises, where I draw on other well-being practices such as mindfulness and yoga.

Singing is particularly good for improving lung capacity – there are choirs out there to support people with respiratory conditions. There are also choirs to support people with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimers.

A reduction in isolation and sense of achievement can help sustain good mental health. Researchers at the Sidney de Haan Centre for Arts and Health say ‘Singing has been shown to be a joyful and uplifting experience. It generates a sense of positive mood, happiness and enjoyment. Such positive feelings also counteract feelings of stress or anxiety and help to distract people from internal negative thoughts and feelings.’

 

Steph: Why is the Tuesday night MHS group for women only and what are the benefits of women singing together?

Shilpa: I run singing workshops for all genders, but My Heart Sings Tuesday night group welcomes all self-identified women and girls only. In a patriarchal society where there is structural discrimination against women and girls, it’s important for people who may have similar experiences to be able to spend time with each other.

The current Tuesday night group includes women who are nurses, social workers, teachers, mental health advocates, campaigners, community activists, lawyers, artists, writers, carers, volunteers, supportive friends, mothers and all sorts of other things that benefit families, communities and society. My Heart Sings is a space for women to do something for ourselves. A time to just be in the present moment, to play and build our energy.

Steph: Could you tell us more about the intersectional thinking behind MHS?

Shilpa: When I first moved to London, I struggled to find a community choir where I felt welcome and included as a woman of colour, passionate about social justice. I wanted to be part of a diverse and welcoming community where I could be comfortable in my own skin and values, where singing and interaction with others gave me energy and inspiration. I knew other women with a similar need and decided to do something about it.

My first priority in My Heart Sings workshops is creating a warm, inclusive space for all singers, whatever their experience of singing or their race, age, sexuality, income, formal education or ability. This is a work in, progress – I learn to do this better every workshop I do.

Steph: Activism and singing go hand in hand for many. Would you say there is a link between radical politics and singing for MHS?

Shilpa: Yes! And we do sing songs from radical social movements – anti-slavery, anti-apartheid, women’s movements in India, union songs. We also might sing a sea shanty, a cattle call from the Scottish Highlands or a Congolese party song.

The personal is political too. Whatever we choose to sing, for me the exciting change potential is in the personal growth and well-being that happens as a result of creative achievement and inclusive connection with others. Since My Heart Sings started in November 2013, singers have reported that singing has helped them to get back into work, improved in their health, encouraged them to take up other musical hobbies, learn about different cultures or be more confident at work. One woman said she ‘felt a few cm taller’.

This quote says it best. Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive’ (-Harold Thurman)

Steph: Are there particular songs that can help women relax and de-stress easily?

Shilpa: The effect of the song will differ according to who you are and what your need is at the time. And how the song is taught can make a big difference.

I choose songs that are not too difficult, but challenging enough to push a group a little. There is an initial phase of slight discomfort as singers are pushed out of their comfort zone, then it settles into  more of a flow as people relax into the song. Generally, I find that songs with simple harmonising parts or songs sung in a round are relaxing as you really need to focus on the other voices and you feel part of something bigger than yourself.

Steph: Do you have favourite songs that you sing in workshops?  

Shilpa: I choose songs that both have a heart-lifting message and that are fun and beautiful to sing in a group. If I had to choose one, it would be Thina Simunye, a song by the Agape Orphanage Choir in South Africa. It means ‘We are together, we are family’ and it has beautifully rich harmonies. I’ve seen teary eyes or spontaneous hugs as we sing it. To be honest, I love all the songs we sing!

Steph: Do you believe anyone can sing?

Shilpa: Our mainstream singing culture in the UK is shaped by shows like X Factor. We often see singers as an exclusive club of people who get up on stage and perform. Too many of us were teased for our singing when we were children.

I believe that if you can talk you can sing. People around the world have come together to sing for centuries – singing to celebrate, mourn, mark the passing of seasons, or just to have fun and pass time. Like dancing or other forms of creative expression, I believe singing is a birthright for us all. I’m interested in how people with limited or no vocal or aural function take part in community singing – through movement, instrument playing or vocalising in different ways.

If we’re not used to singing much, it helps to practice – not only to make nice sounds, but to have the shift in attitude where we learn to enjoy them.

Check out www.myheartsings.co.uk for workshops with Shilpa

Thanks to Steph for the questions and article which inspired this first blog.

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