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A song cycle geared for the long haul

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A remarkable project that uses opera singing to transform the lives of people affected by long Covid is also creating an inspirational collection of songs.

Working with leading opera singers has been one of Gareth Williams’ greatest joys; nurturing those with more fragile voices is proving every bit as satisfying.

The acclaimed composer is relishing his role in a remarkable initiative that seeks to help people with long Covid sing their way back to better health.

The Edinburgh Chancellor’s Fellow is part of a team that uses the techniques employed by professional singers to support those struggling with the condition’s debilitating effects.

Gareth is working with Scottish Opera to offer patients an online programme of gentle vocal training and breathing exercises that helps them re-build physical resilience.

He and poet Martin O’Connor have also been hosting online song writing sessions, designed to boost mental wellbeing, as part of the Scottish Government-backed project, called Breath Cycle II.

Armagh to arias

Portrait photo of composer Gareth Williams
Gareth Williams

For Gareth – based in the Reid School of Music – it is the latest twist in a career that has taken some unexpected turns and seen his work performed in lighthouses, barns and distilleries, as well as in more conventional settings.

This most versatile of practitioners has long been drawn to the fringes – seeking out what many would see as unlikely collaborators and audiences for opera and music theatre. Through it all, he has sought to explore themes of vulnerability and to shed light on stories and people that might otherwise have been overlooked.

The roots of this approach run deep. Growing up in Armagh, Northern Ireland, Gareth was encouraged to take up music at a young age, embarking on a path that took him from piano lessons, through teenage garage bands, to the study of music at university.

During, and after, the completion of his PhD, he worked as a freelance composer and musician with BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Scottish Opera and the National Theatre of Scotland.

From there, he co-founded his own company, enabling him to write operas in collaboration with musicians unused to working in the genre – a process that opened up a host of previously unimagined possibilities.

Deep breaths

Gareth created a pilot version of Breath Cycle for people with cystic fibrosis as far back as 2012, while working as Scottish Opera’s composer-in-residence.

Taking place online, because people with cystic fibrosis are unable to share the same space, those remote sessions felt like something from a science fiction novel. Fast forward to the present day, however, and everyone is more at ease sharing ideas online.

Scottish Opera’s Director of Outreach and Education, Jane Davidson, invited Gareth to revisit the project at the start the pandemic – this time focusing on people living with long Covid. He was only too pleased to accept.

“I have spent years working with opera singers,” says Gareth. “Their voices are titanium and made to fill auditoriums so they have to build them carefully and over time.

“It’s a graceful and slow process, which I wanted to share with those who have more fragile and vulnerable voices, perhaps because of respiratory issues.”

Opera singers have their work cut out to ensure their voices are pitch perfect onstage and hit the high notes night after night. Yet those same exercises, says Gareth, can help people with respiratory conditions: “It comes back to posture and breathing and building stamina.”

Participants take part in a range of exercises such as breathing through a straw into a bottle, or joining a senior vocalist on tunes that include Wild Mountain Thyme and Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

As part of the programme’s recent expansion, Scottish Opera has released a new set of free, online resources that are available to individuals and singing groups worldwide. Hopes are high that this collection of vocal exercises can be expanded.

Three vocal coaches lead the online weekly singing lessons. Each understands the need to work from scratch, to be gentle, to help build a sustainable, healthy way to sing.

A woman demonstrates breathing techniques at launch of Breath Cycle
Breathing techniques were key in restoring and strengthening participants lung capacity.

“We aren’t doing this project so we can push our participants out on stage at the end of 12 weeks to belt out a show tune,” says Gareth, who has taught in special education for many years.

“We want to teach the joy of a daily singing practice. If we can encourage some of our participants to go on to join their local choir at the end – then that’s a real bonus.

“Every week, I remind myself that we are working with a group of people whose daily energy ‘budget’ is something they have to manage very carefully – and some weeks have to be gentler than others. The challenges I face pale in significance.”

Singing stories

With this desire to develop people’s physical voices, has come a longing to nurture their creative voices too. And, so, Gareth and poet Martin O’Connor began working with project participants to create pieces that told their stories, and gave them new songs to sing as they found their voices.

The results are engaging, insightful and moving. At the heart of the process, says Gareth, is authenticity: “Real stories unlock something in a song that we can all relate to. These lyrics from the Breath Cycle co-creators are a gift in that sense. They demand to be sung.”

It has proven to be a wondrous experience. Having worked for over a year now, the collaboration has produced a series of hugely affecting songs that share important stories about the lives of those affected by long Covid.

The initiative has found a way to bring together a widely scattered group of people and create a space where they can meet, learn to sing and support one another.

A songbook of participants’ work was officially released at a celebratory event in Glasgow. It featured the first public performance of Breath Cycle songs by performers including Louis Abbott of Glasgow band Admiral Fallow and Scottish Opera’s 70-strong Community Choir.

A singer on stage at the launch of Breath Cycle II

Workshop Leaders spoke that night about the project’s benefits, as did those who have been helped. One participant, on hearing her lyrics being sung, said: “It captures the loneliness and helplessness I felt at that time so beautifully – the enormity of what was happening to me.”

Another, reflecting on their journey, recalled: “Long Covid is extremely isolating, so connecting with everyone has helped my mood. My breathing is also much stronger. It’s a fantastic programme.”

Many of the stories, to begin with, focused on tough times. They touched on anxiety and exhaustion, home life and household chores. They voiced fears about being silenced; spoke into family dynamics and even mused on the changing weather.

Far from sounding doleful, the resulting songs are, in fact, something quite joyous. From each individual story, says Gareth, came a song with hope in its bones – songs of finding strength and resilience: “When Martin and I began the project, we were looking forward to helping people. We didn’t expect to find such incredible collaborators.”

Gareth and Martin are keen to expand the song book, to add new material from current participants, and to include work from others who might hear about it and feel inspired to write.

“It’s my hope,” says Gareth, “that we widen the search and find more people who want to try the programme. Breath cycle is a space to celebrate the voice – to sing together, to tell stories and make our own songs.”

Picture credits: Choir  and breathing technique – Scottish Opera; Gareth Williams – Kris Kesiak