How 'Songpath' walks will support mental health through music, fresh air and poetry

A rising star of the opera world is using the delights of the natural world to promote good mental health. Greg Wright reports.

SHE was one of America’s greatest poets, but few outside her close-knit family and friends were aware of her remarkable talents or prolific output during her lifetime.

In the years following Emily Dickinson’s death, the world slowly awakened to her genius as the 1,800 poems she had written in seclusion in Amherst, Massachusetts, were placed in the public domain.

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Just one of these poems will form the inspiration for an event next week which aims to prove that a combination of music, fresh air and poetry can work wonders for your mental health.

Opera singer Jess Dandy performing in nature.

In collaboration with the Leeds Lieder festival - which champions art and music - opera singer Jess Dandy is leading two ‘Songpath’ walks on 18th April at RSPB St Aidan’s Nature Park, in Astley Lane, Leeds.

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Ms Dandy is a rising star who is passionate about promoting the importance of good mental health. Last year she was shortlisted for a Royal Philharmonic Society Award in the category of Young Artist, and was the soloist at the First Night of the Proms last summer.

Ms Dandy has also established Songpath, a mental health initiative which provides participants with ways of making connections through walking, talking and music-making in nature.

Ms Dandy and the Songpath team create musical walking trails in beautiful landscapes. The Songpaths at RSPB St Aidan’s Nature Park are inspired by the Emily Dickinson poem ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’, and will take the form of a gentle walk around the reserve.

Songs will be performed by Ms Dandy and Joanna Harries, there will also be talks from a psychotherapist and an ornithologist, as well as group songs, poetry readings and music inspired by the immediate surroundings.

Ms Dandy says: “In 2018, NHS Shetland ordered its GPs to give ‘nature prescriptions’ to patients with debilitating physical and mental health problems. Doctors handed out lists of bird walks and outdoor activities to work alongside their prescription for pills.

“All of these prescriptions involve turning one’s attention outwards, expanding awareness – ‘really look’, ‘look out for’, ‘listen’. As soon as we become more receptive to what is going on around us, we see our inner turmoil in a different, less urgent, less desperate light.

“As soon as we notice the beauty and vitality of other lives, we start to notice the existence of and potential for that beauty in our own lives .We cannot help but mirror the lives of those around us. As Wordsworth says, ‘Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher’.

Ms Dandy adds: “What we aim to do is to create a space in which a person can be safe enough to begin to be receptive, to turn their attention outwards, to come out from under the covers as it were; to begin to resynchronise with themselves and the world around them.

“SongPath is about using nature to connect with your own nature, your own sense of why, of what makes the world light up for you.”

Songpath also provides workshops and raises money for the mental health charity Mind, and will be giving four days of free workshops via Leeds Mind at venues across the city.

SongPath is not therapy, but it has grown out of evidence-based psychotherapeutic models: and is a “creative expansion” of the Attentional Redirection Exercise used in the treatment of anxiety and depression, and Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory, which credits time spent in nature with numerous psychological and physiological benefits.

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