NO-one has ever had to tell Barbara Harpham that singing is good for her. As a tiny child, growing up in Saltburn-by-the-Sea in North Yorkshire, she knew her mum was feeling happy when she heard her singing as she baked an apple pie or went about the housework.
“Mum was also in a choir, and because I didn’t like her going out without me, I would go along and sit behind the tenors. I just loved the sound, and it wasn’t long before I had to join in. It has always brought me great joy.”
The happy factor released by lifting her voice was affecting her physically and mentally in ways the young Barbara could not have understood back then,
Decades later, she is national director of the Yorkshire-based charity Heart Research UK, which was started by the Leeds heart surgeon David Watson.
He wanted to make cardiac surgery safer and started the charity in the hope of furthering the understanding of heart conditions as well as finding better surgical techniques and improving patient care. HRUK funded six of the first eight successful heart transplants in the UK, developed a revolutionary heart valve, one of the most reliable used in the world today, and paid for the first artificial heart pump in the world, which was implanted into a patient who became the longest survivor with a mechanical heart device.
Watson, now 90, retires this week as president of Heart Research UK, having seen a revolution in surgical possibilities and patient survival rates during his professional career, first at Killingbeck Hospital and later at Leeds General Infirmary.
He may be stepping down from the helm of the charity, but the work goes on, and its many volunteers and supporters across the country run events each year which raise £1m towards heart research.
For the last five years the Christmas period has seen the Sing For Your Heart campaign, which involves groups of singers large an small in weeks of fundraising in public places.
Their songs bring a smile to the faces of people in train and bus stations, city and town centre squares and parks, as well as inside shopping centres,churches, schools, town halls, and community centres.
Singers either join in events set up by the charity or organise their own “gig” in a local place. The style of singing and kind of song is entirely up to them. The recent explosion in the number of choirs across the country may have more to do with television talent shows suddenly making them fashionable, but whether you are in a barber shop quartet, a gospel ensemble, a church choir or a community choir that specialises in film and stage show numbers, the net effect on mind and body are the same.
Singing is a particularly apt way of raising money for a heart charity. The act of singing regularly has been found to help the singer to live longer, according to the findings of a joint Harvard and Yale study which showed that choral singing increased the life expectancy of the population of New Haven, Connecticut.
The report concluded that this was because singing promoted both a healthy heart and an enhanced mental state. Another study, at the University of California, has reported higher levels of immune system proteins in the saliva of choristers after performing Beethoven masterworks.
Leading vocal coach and singer Helen Astrid says singing is also a great workout. “It’s a great way to keep in shape because you are exercising your lungs and heart. Not only that, your body produces ‘feel good’ hormones called endorphins, which rush around your body when you sing. It even tones the muscles of your stomach and back, if you’re singing correctly.” Singing has been found to help both asthma and depression patients.
Even if you have never sung before, a good time to start is after heart treatment, says Dr Chris Pepper, consultant cardiologist at the Leeds Heart Centre.
“There is good reason to believe that singing could be beneficial as part of the rehabilitation of patients with heart disease following heart attack or heart damage. Cardiac rehabilitation has been shown to reduce risk of further heart attack and improve functional recovery. Singing may potentially contribute to this by virtue of relaxation, controlled exercise, blood pressure reduction and the improvement of breathlessness”
There are opportunities for choirs to join in Sing For Your Heart events (or set up their own) during December.
For information go to: www.heartresearch.org.uk/singforyourheart