Singing through adversity with the aphasia chrous

PUBLISHED: 14:30 01 March 2012 | UPDATED: 21:08 20 February 2013

Members of the Singing in the Rain Aphasia Chorus all have speech and communication difficulties but they are now able to communicate through music.

If you walk past the Queens Hall in Cuckfield between 10am and midday on the first Wednesday of every month you will hear the strains of a choir singing. The snippets of songs may sound like any ordinary choir rehearsal, but this is far from the case. In fact, this is an extraordinary choir, for all the members have had a stroke which has left them with aphasia speech and communication difficulties. Aphasia occurs when a stroke damages the left side of the brain, which, for most of us, controls speech and stores our words and language. However, our music centre is stored on the right side of the brain which means that those with aphasia can often still remember lyrics and melodies.

The Singing in the Rain Aphasia Chorus is made up of members from two communication support groups in Crawley and Cuckfield run by the Stroke Associations Mid-Downs Service. Explaining how the choir came about, Sandra Field, South East Coast Regional Head of Operations for the Stroke Association, says: Music often plays a role when working with people with communication difficulties and community musician Lou Beckerman had already been taking sessions with these two support groups. When we saw the huge enjoyment people were getting from it, we thought we could take it a step further and form a proper choir.

Funding was needed to hire the Queens Hall, pay Lou to lead the choir, and provide free minibuses to ferry members to and from sessions. After attracting sponsorship from Lewes-based building company Ellmer Construction to fund the choirs first year, the sounds of music could be heard from the hall by January 2009, culminating in a Christmas concert at the end of that year. Members chose to name the choir Singing in the Rain because it reflected their experiences of singing through adversity, says Sandra.

But when the funding came to an end, coinciding with Lou no longer being able to continue because of other commitments, it looked like the end of the road. Fortunately, the Grocers Charity stepped forward with a donation and professional musician Rebecca Dowden was recruited as the choirs musical director in spring 2010. From the outset Rebecca was clear that she did not want to approach it from a medical stance. They are so used to therapies and nurse-based services and I wanted to make this different. Yes, I have to be aware of peoples limitations, but in many ways Im treating it like any other adult choir.

Although Rebecca had no previous knowledge or experience of stroke, there were two reasons behind her decision to work with the choir: I had had a student with a brain injury and saw how singing transformed her quality of life. It brought joy as well as helping the brain work better and I realised that this was a way I could help people.

In each session she aims to create a stimulating atmosphere with music, and this approach has a two-pronged effect: By improving the choir from a musical point of view it is good from a medical point of view too. So I work on improving the sound, and by working on their breathing and vowel and consonant sounds it is beneficial to me as a musician, the group as a choir, and to them as individuals who have had a stroke.

I find it fascinating how singing can help brain function if we can find songs that are stored in peoples memories, she adds. It takes them away from all the worries and difficulties, its a joyous distraction. To this end she has sourced songs that have been a part of peoples lives, from folk songs such as My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, to gospel songs like Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and worked them into medleys. The logic behind this is that we all tend to remember bits of songs rather than entire lyrics, so the medleys tap into the parts of a song that most of the group remember from the past.

To help the group learn new lyrics or remember old ones, Rebecca uses an echo technique where she speaks or sings a line first and then they repeat it to help build up speech and memory skills. It is a technique that has worked well for Norma Charlton. Her stroke in February 2010 was so severe that she was not expected to survive. When she came out of a coma after several months at the neurological department of the Princess Royal Hospital in Haywards Heath, Norma could not speak for another six months. From the hospital she was moved to Royston Nursing Home in Hassocks where, she says, staff were amazing, they brought me back from the dead. After almost a year there she was moved to Hilgay Residential Care Home in Burgess Hill and finally moved back home with her husband Peter in September. With speech therapy and a lot of hard work on Normas part you would never guess what she has been through.

The choir has definitely helped my speech, she says. My dad was a musician and I love music, you can relate to it somehow. I desperately wanted to speak again but without the help I probably would not have done. Going to the choir made me forget I was living in a care home. The choir makes me feel like a human being again, I feel more like me.

Speaking to choir members and their partners and relatives, the pleasure in being able to sing words when they can no longer speak them is palpable. The choir lifts their spirits, gives them a chance to interact socially, and restores much dented self-confidence. Eighty-one-year-old Sheila Jackmans face lights up at the start of every session and she spends the two hours singing and humming the songs, swaying to the music and clapping along, clearly loving it. Sheilas stroke nine years ago left her unable to speak except for a few words, although previously she had sung in a choir and played the piano beautifully.

Her daughter, Hazel, says: The frustration of not being able to communicate properly is immense, but she copes with it admirably. She loves the choir because she can express herself there. It is so liberating for her to sing, she can forget and be happy, and it is mentally stimulating for her to be out of the house. For someone who cant talk, it must be even better to be able to open your mouth and for something to come out, even if sometimes it is the wrong words.

Several members feel that singing in the choir is a form of speech therapy by the back door. Among them is Patricia Taylor who was working as a doctors receptionist in Lewes when she collapsed. As someone whose job relied on being able to communicate, Patricia finds the difficulty she now has in expressing herself incredibly frustrating and exhausting, especially as she can understand everything that is being said but finds it difficult to get across what she wants to say.

When the choir was mentioned to her as an activity she might enjoy, Patricia says her first thought was: I dont think I can do that, but I dont know that I cant, so why dont I give it a try.

She enjoyed it straight away and feels it is helping her speech: It works, all of a sudden you are alright; it gives you a way of communicating again. When you talk it is such a struggle, but you can sing without thinking, you just open your mouth and it happens.

If you know anyone who would like to join the choir please contact Sandra Field on 01622 351967.

For advice and information on stroke contact the Stroke Association helpline 0303 3033 100 or visit

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