For nearly a year, musicians across the world have not been able to perform in the facet they are used to. Theaters, concert halls, and opera houses have been closed since March to discourage large gatherings of people in close proximities. Some companies re-opened in the fall briefly, like the English National Opera. Last September, the company settled for an outdoor “drive-in opera” experience last September where listeners could watch an abridged performance of Puccini’s “La Bohѐme” over large screens in a London park.
Considering the regular in-person rehearsals and performances many opera singers are used to, the past year has been exceedingly difficult. The people with the English National Opera, however, decided to find a way to keep active at home. The wardrobe department making protective gear for doctors and nurses in hospitals during the shortage, but the performers wanted to find some way to help too.
It was last summer when the world started to hear more about how men and women across the world who struggled with recovering from long-term Covid cases. Though they were no longer infectious and tested negative for the virus, many patients continue to experience chest pain, fatigue, brain fog, and breathlessness.
This information caught the attention of Jenny Mollica, the woman who run’s the English National Opera’s outreach work. “Opera is rooted in breath,” she says. “That’s our expertise. I thought, ‘Maybe E.N.O. has something to offer.’”
She contacted Dr. Sarah Elkin, a respiratory at one of England’s largest public hospital networks, Imperial College N.H.S. Trust, with her idea about offering assistance through teaching breath control to these patients. Treating breathlessness is difficult, especially with a virus they knew so little about at the time. As a former singer herself, Dr. Elkin thought vocal training might be worth a shot.
So, a six-week program via Zoom, E.N.O Breathe, was born. It started with just 12 patients. They explained their experience and situation with Suzi Zumpe, a vocal coach at the Royal Academy of Music (or Garsington Opera), during a one-on-one, then joined the group for weekly sessions.
Just like how one might need to learn the basics before taking up weightlifting, Zumpe teaches her students where to begin with proper posture and breath control. She moves on to guide the group in a number of exercises she would guide her students with: lip trills, scales, short bursts of humming and singing—all exercises that encourage building lung capacity through music.
“We want to build an emotional connection through the music, make it enjoyable,” she says. “It’s not just physical.”
Understanding building lung capacities and measures for calm breathe benefits more than the patients’ breathing abilities. It helps them breathe calmly and manage anxiety, something many people struggle with post-Covid.
Jenny Mollica. Runs the English National Opera outreach program. Credit: Karla Gowlett.
An image from the E.N.O Breathe program.
The prospect rings true for Wayne Cameron, a warehouse logistic manager for an office supplies company. He was admittedly skeptical when his doctors prescribed him work with a vocal coach for the sake of recovery, but after several visits to the emergency room due to blood clots and respiratory issues, it was worth a shot.
Cameron describes that post-Covid, he constantly struggled for air. Little daily activities made him short of breath. By working through the exercises provided by Zumpe, Wayne finds he is leaps and bounds better than he was “physically, mentally, [and] in terms of anxiety.” Recently, he was able to have a snowball fight with his daughter, something he wouldn’t have been able to manage months before.
“I’ve got far more confidence than I did,” he says. “That dark feeling has disappeared.”
The program also allowed Cameron to swap stories with people going through something similar, an invaluable connection to have.
With the success of the initial trial, the program has been expanded to post-Covid patients anywhere in England. It is free to anyone who is referred to by a doctor, and is aiming to take in up to 1,000 participants.
E.N.O Breathe has proven to benefit patients of Covid-19 and musicians alike. During a time where performers are forced to stay at home, it has given those who are able to participate something to focus on. It gives them a sense of belonging and purpose many have felt have been lacking from their life.
Wayne Cameron, one of the participants of E.N.O Breathe.
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