Archives for the month of: September, 2014

By Shilpa

Two new special workshops from My Heart Sings!

1. Theme: ‘Self Care Saturday’

Saturday 18th October, 1.30pm – 4.30pm

Traffic, work, keeping up with family and friends, chores. Do you find yourself feeling stretched…. most of the time? What impact does that have on your health? And how does it affect your work and personal life?

In a busy city full of people negotiating packed diaries, how do we be a little more gentle and kind to ourselves? What are the barriers? How do we overcome them?

This special workshop will blend creative discussion exercises and singing uplifting songs, all related to caring for that special person in your life – YOU!

audre lorde self care

  • Breathing and relaxation methods you can use daily
  • Facilitated discussion exercises exploring different aspects of self-care together
  • Gentle, uplifting and rejuvenating songs
  • A tea and fruit break
  • Time to start a self-care plan
  • A follow up email with lots of resources and ideas to support you
  • Numbers capped at 20 participants

Who is this workshop for?

A workshop especially for women working on health, well-being, education, community or justice issues

Open to all women over 18. It doesn’t matter if you have not been to any My Heart Sings workshops or any other choir before – complete beginners are very welcome.

MHS quote


St Lukes Community Centre, Central St, London, EC1 8AJ (nearest tube is Old St, venue accessible for wheelchair users). Please arrive by 1.15 for a 1.30 start.

Suggested contributions:

£5 – £25.

Suggested standard contribution is £18. If this is too much to manage, please contribute what you can afford (if £5 is not currently possible, please contact me about a free place). If you contribute more than £18, you are making a solidarity contribution to support someone else to attend.

Your contribution will help to pay for venue, refreshment and materials costs. Any extra will go to Shilpa – My Heart Sings does not currently receive funding and your contribution helps me keep doing this work. A £5 deposit will be requested to secure your place.

Booking process:

Please email with a contact number and a few sentences about your reasons for attending this workshop. I’ll send you a registration form and details for how to make a £5 deposit, which will secure your place.

2. Also, Save the date! Next special My Heart Sings workshop:

Theme: ‘Exploring my voice’

Saturday 22nd November, 1.30-4.30pm.

Our voice isn’t just the audible sound that comes out of our mouths. Our voice helps us to express our feelings, to work with others and to speak up for things we believe in.

What does my voice mean to me? How do I use my voice, in my family life, my work life and my community? How do I look after my voice and strengthen it?

Discussion and other creative exercises to help us explore us our voices – and some singing, of course!

More details to come. To register interest in this workshop please email and more details will be sent to you.


By Shilpa

This is the second in a series of blogs reporting back from the Symposium on the Science of Singing, Well-being and Health in London, September 2014 (see the first blog here). This blog is about a presentation by British evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar.

When I think about singing through history, I make the assumption that our ancestors have always sung. Granted, they would probably have turned up their noses at the likes of One Direction, but singing must always have been part of human culture in some way, right? Then I heard Robin Dunbar speak and my thinking backflipped. What about our ancestors before modern humans? If there was a time when singing didn’t exist, how and why did we start doing it? As a community song leader, Robin’s theory of the evolution of singing helped me connect the dots and explore why I do the work I do. What he says is worth sharing.

So, this is Robin Dunbar’s theory as summarised by me. As monkeys and primates evolved over the centuries, their brain sizes increased. As there brains got bigger over time, they could cope with more complexity. And the size of the social groups they formed and hung out increased in line with their brain sizes. Bigger groups were a good thing – they meant increasing safety for our ancestors. Dunbar puts the optimum group size for humans at around 150, which is ‘Dunbar’s number’ (which he claims is true even in a world where we have hundreds of Facebook ‘friends’)

Relationships in groups need nurturing to ensure group members get on well together – promoting greater harmony and safety together. Primates primarily bond their groups through a network of grooming (like stroking or massage from our perspective). They spend a lot of time grooming each other in pairs. Both groom-er and groom-ee experience a boost of endorphins within the nervous system, which has an opiate-like effect. Grooming brings about a natural high of relaxation and contentment. Everyone involved enjoys it and it builds trust between community members.

P1030640Grooming and having a laugh at Monkey World © Shilpa Shah

So grooming feels really good. But it also takes up a lot of time. It’s a one-on-one activity, where personal attention is crucial to make it feel good. As Dunbar said ‘If you have ever sat in the back of a cinema and tried to cuddle two people at the same time, you know that may cause some friction’. He suggests that as group sizes increased during evolution, there just wasn’t enough time in a day for everyone to groom enough other group members to keep good relationships between the whole group. One has to gather food, sleep etc. after all. Modern humans would need 3 hours a day of grooming to bond our-sized groups. A new and more efficient way of bonding groups was needed.

Robin believes our ancestors came up with the following solutions for new ways of bonding their groups together:

  • First came laughter. We give our lungs and diaphragm a workout and release those feel-good endorphins and we can do it as a group.
  • Then came singing. And then other music forms.
  • Language came later.

Like grooming, singing triggers the activation of endorphins which produce relaxation and contentment, and therefore trust in a group. Singing together in a group increases the effect of wellbeing (as anyone who sings in a group will tell you). This has also been observed in group dancing – which might explain why songs with actions are always popular in my singing workshops. It also helps explain my deep love for cheesy Bollywood choreography! Note – actually doing music is key. Listening to a performance also feels good, but has less of an impact on how we feel.

Robin guesses that our ancestors first started singing around half a million years ago. And we can see how singing bonds groups today. Even in the UK, where we seem relatively hesitant about community singing compared to some other societies, we are brought together by football chants, folk songs, religious hymns and bhajans, and singing happy birthday over candles and cake.

My Heart Sings workshop participants often tell me that the connection with other people is the main thing that brings them back each week. In Steph’s recent blog about My Heart Sings workshops, she says ‘Instead of the usual averted gaze and complete lack of acknowledgement I was used to when going to events or meetups in London, I was greeted with smiling faces and welcomed like an old friend.’

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.’

In a society where we have huge networks, but often little sense of real community, singing groups are playing an ancient role of encouraging belonging and happiness. So treasure your local singing group, wherever you are – your endorphins will thank you for it 🙂

May 14 busking 1Some of the lovely women of My Heart Sings – those who sing together, smile together! © Shilpa Shah

PS – The production of endorphins through singing has been found to help increase pain thresholds and all sorts of other impressive impacts for people with various health conditions. I’ll explore this more in the next blog..

PPS- There are other relevant evolutionary theories too (eg summarised here) .

By Shilpa This blog is dedicated to Phil, whose fierce and gentle love of nature inspires me.

Sunshine in September. I’m sitting in a park in North London. It is sprinkled with people lifting their faces to the warmth. We are catching rays which feel sweeter than they did in July. Because suddenly the approaching winter is more of a reality than it seemed back then. And whilst winter has its charms of roasted chestnuts, fires and curling up on the sofa, I am relishing the delicious warmth of the autumnal sun. It’s not just the weather I’m enjoying of course. There are big, majestic trees. There is an expanse of blue sky with a few wisps of white. There is a rose garden hosting a party of bright colours. There are children playing and a group of teenagers teasing each other. I can feel my heartbeat. I feel well and whole, being here. I feel happy, being here. Here is not traffic or to-do lists or checking emails. Here is listening to my breathing, hearing children laugh and watching the light and wind ripple through leaves.


Photo: Sitting in the park. © Shilpa Shah

Last Tuesday, I taught a song to my Tuesday night women’s group in celebration of spending time in nature.

In the cool green garden I can sit and see

The whole of the world in a flower, in a tree

In the cool green garden I can sit and see

The whole of the world and it shines for me

Thank you to Ali Burns and Ros Thomas for this beautiful little song, written for children’s assemblies(*see footnote below). It’s definitely an ear worm – as I find myself humming it, I notice I start drifting outside to the garden. I know I’m very fortunate to have access to a garden in a city like London.


Photo: Changing seasons in the garden. © Shilpa Shah

City life often isn’t easy. Nature is an important anti-dote for many (as well as singing of course!). And not just when it’s sunny. Here are this busy Londoner’s wellbeing-in-nature tips:

  1. See if you can weave some time in green space every day – as part of your daily walking/cycle, commute or lunchbreak. Take a moment to observe something new there every day. Notice if you’re anxious about things such as time constraints or safety. Is there a way to get around these concerns?
  2. If you have a few extra minutes, let yourself walk really slowly. Notice your footsteps, sounds, scents, any wildlife.
  3. When meeting up with friends during the day, a walk in the park can be a good alternative to usual indoor meeting places.
  4. Do you like to read? Take your book along to your nearest park!
  5. Is the weather too awful to be outside? Find yourself a seat next to a window looking out. Watch the rain drops. Park cafes are good for this.
  6. Explore your local area for less obvious green spaces you may be able to enjoy – cemeteries, city farms, grounds of public buildings such as hospitals or museums, canal paths
  7. Jump on a bus, train or bike and take a day-trip. You often don’t have to go far to find a peaceful spot.
  8. Grow something and look after it. Anything – basil in a pot, tomatoes on the window sill, spider plants… . Growing stuff doesn’t have to be hard and it’s flippin’ good for us
  9. As cities grow in size and density, access to green space is increasingly precious. Especially in poorer areas of town. If you wish to get more active, your local park may have a Friends group that organised clearing, conservation, community and campaigning efforts.
  10. Do you have tips to add? Comment below or email and I’ll update this blog with your ideas.


*I found In the Cool Green Garden in the wonderful book Respect: Songs for Inclusive School Assemblies. Accompanying the lyrics are signs from the Signalong system, which is a accessible communication system based on British Sign Language. I taught the signs after we learnt the lyrics. There were giggles all round to start – remembering the words and correct signs felt like trying to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time. But we persevered and got pretty good after a few minutes. One singer said ‘it adds something that the words alone don’t say’.

By Shilpa

I was fortunate to be invited to a Symposium on the Science of Singing, Well-being and Health, held yesterday at the Royal college of Music in London. It was organised by the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health, who work hard to connect researchers and practitioners to strengthen this important field of work.

‘I felt as if I had been living in black and white and then suddenly there was glorious technicolour’  – (Eric Whitacre, composer and conductor, on his first choir singing experience)

If you sing – whether in the shower, at a football match or in an opera – you know intuitively that singing makes us feel better. The Symposium brought together scientists, musicians and other practitioners to showcase scientific evidence which is beginning to clarify the connection between singing and well-being. Group singing was a particular focus.

flash mob small

Photo: This is how singing makes me feel 🙂

Singing makes me feel amazing. Supporting health and well-being is at the core of My Heart Sings, so I was very excited to go. This is the first of a series of blogs to share, and reflect on, what I heard.

The symposium was held in the Britten Theatre and it had an air of grandness that I’m not accustomed to. There were presentations, discussions, performances and of course some participative singing too. Performances by the fabulous Choir With No Name and a few Singing for Breathing groups opened the sessions with gusto. Researchers presented their work and took questions.

Gender came up as an interesting theme, when one researcher noted that in the choirs they studied, there was usually a gender split of 85% women and 15% men. This matches my experience of most mixed gender community choirs and workshops. It is interesting to note that the morning of scientific theory was presented entirely by men (with most of the audience questions coming from men). The afternoon session, blending science and details of practice, was presented mostly by women (with more questions from women in the audience). All the speakers and studies were from the Global North (apart from one study referenced in Brazil).

After the Choir with No Name’s opening performance, the first researcher started to present. I prepared myself to switch into Serious Powerpoint Mode (a technical term). I wasn’t expecting to be filled with delight.

Rickard Astrom and team in Sweden have been measuring the connection between singing, breathing rates and heart rates. Their findings that people’s heart rates synchronise when singing together claimed international attention last year.

Rickard explained a bit of theory. Then – and this was utterly brilliant – his colleague hooked up five members of the choir to a heart rate monitor and gave us all a simple song to sing. As we sang, we could see the heart rates of the choir members on the screen, in real time! The heart rates slowly followed a similar pattern, to increase and decrease in line with inhalations and exhalations. They weren’t perfectly correlated in the short song we sang, but we could notice clear similarities. And then they diverged again after we stopped singing.

pic hearts

Photo: The Choir With No Name singing – the screen behind shows the heart rates of five singers

The next stages of the study are to explore how synchronicity in heartbeats help people to get on. Does it help groups to work together better? Does it help to overcome conflict? I find this very exciting from an inclusive community development perspective. I’ve since suggested to Rickard that the wonderful and diverse women in My Heart Sings groups and workshops may well be interested in helping with future studies. Singers – shall we invite the team along to monitor our heartbeats, so we can see our hearts singing as we harmonise?!

Next blog: The Evolution of Singing. Where does singing come from? Why do we do it and why does it feel good?

By Shilpa

New season apples and pears. Tomato and courgette harvests. Back to school. Catching rays of that slightly cooler autumnal sunshine.. Happy September to you all.

My Heart Sings Tuesday night workshops will start again on Tuesday 9th September, after a summer break.

Tuesday 9th September, 6.30-8pm at St Lukes Community Centre, near Old Street, in London UK. Open to all women.

Details are here:

It’s a great time for newcomers to join. If you’ve never sung in a group or whether you’re an experienced choir-goer, you’re very welcome.

Please spread the word!

If you have any questions, please email

WARNING: spontaneous laugher, dancing and feelings of well-being may be experienced by participants. Come at your own peril!


group photo