I’ll tell you what we really really want

Published in Features on 3 Nov 2014

The new miracle cure is . . .aspirin! No, wait, that was last week. Must be a heart pill then, it’s difficult to keep up with all these tabloid stories.

Me, I’m waiting for the Daily Mail to report that the new miracle cure is . . . singing. Well, it probably does some good for those with COPD or for strengthening the voice in people with Parkinson’s.

That doesn’t sound too whole-hearted, try again. Singing is the new (well, ancient as the hills), miracle (yes, I'll allow that) cure (more  like a possible aid, really) for . . .  Nope, I can’t convince myself there’s strong clinical evidence for singing being better than the latest cancer drug. Which, as a champion of music making (and singing in particular), should worry me. But then I read Prue Thimbley’s Let’s Luminate piece where she points out that when hospital patients were asked what they wanted they’d reply to be well again - but when asked "what they really, really, really wanted" it was "to feel loved and connected to other people and for their lives to have some meaning."

There may be a drug for what we want - but I doubt there’s one for what we really, really, really want. That’s why there’s singing.

So singing - let’s stick with the Parkinson’s example - probably (or almost certainly, depends on who’s counting) has a positive effect on the weakened voice that is a symptom for many people with the condition. But good speech therapy almost certainly does a better, more efficient job at that. Yep, when it’s about what people with Parkinson’s want, drugs and therapies seem a better bet than art.

But it’s hard to envisage a group of people forming a community of interest around their speech therapy sessions, in the way that the Skylarks song group does around vocalising Pachelbel’s Canon.  Grenville Hancox and Roger Clayton explain (though they hardly need to - the video tells you all) that what these singers get from their two-hour, once-a-fortnight singing sessions is not primarily symptom-control. They get feelings.

They feel friendship, they feel connections, and they experience fun. They may have come together because they all have the same neurological condition, but they stay together because they experience powerful, meaningful social connections. These aren’t incidental to the act of making music together - they are integral to it.

The research literature (eg Active Ageing with Music, Creech et al 2014 London: IOE Press) is stuffed full of examples: Don Coffman’s work on social capital, William Dabback describes feelings of belonging and collaboration. In other words, people who sing in groups connect with others, feel loved, and have purpose

And that’s what they really, really, really want.