A break from shortness of breath: How singing helped me get through a long Covid
Listen to this story:
(If you don’t see the audio player, click here to listen on SoundCloud.)
Singing was the only time I felt in control of my lungs and, paradoxically, able to forget them.
It was October and my shortness of breath had worsened after weeks of teasing improvement. I felt breathless while walking or resting, lying or sitting, working or watching Netflix, talking or meditating in silence. But not by singing.
Since my probable covid infection last June, I’ve become familiar with the discomfort and frustration of feeling like my body isn’t getting all the air it needs. I have also come to deeply appreciate the moments when my breathing returns to its autonomous function and does not occupy any portion of my consciousness.
My first symptoms a year ago were pretty typical of covid: sore throat, headache, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Although I have never tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, some of my doctors believe I have been infected. I suspect so too, given that I’m still struggling with symptoms a year later.
Music has always been a part of my life, including during the pandemic. I started classical violin lessons at the age of 5, leaving them for folk music six years later. I wanted to be a part of the various folk music traditions that my older sister played on the piano and hammered dulcimer. I joined my first choir at the age of 12, which has spoiled me with a repertoire of songs that span all corners of the world. As an adult, I did my best to satisfy ethnomusicological inclinations with workshops, song-sharing events, and jam sessions, but I haven’t sung with a choir regularly since college. The pandemic offered a new opportunity: a virtual âcross-countryâ choir.
From September 2020 to April 2021, we met one weekend a month to learn a Yoruba playing song from Nigeria, a song from the Sevdalinka tradition in Bosnia and Herzegovina, an Appalachian standard, a folk song from the province of Gilan in Iran and many others.
Quebec was one of our “destinations” in October, and all the stress melted away from my body the first time I heard “My dear friends, I invite you. “The dissonant harmonies of the sad French-Canadian drinking song might not relax everyone, but they resonated with me so much that I began to spend much of my free time learning its delicate middle harmony. .
I was surprised at the relief this provided, both physical and emotional. Even after I had mastered the notes and memorized the lyrics to this Quebec song, I sang it whenever I needed a break from the breathlessness.
Lydia Zuraw sings the melody and harmony from the first verse of “My dear friends, I invite you”:
(Can’t see the audio player? Click here to listen on SoundCloud.)
Longer breaths, less stress
Long before Covid, music therapists used singing and wind instruments to help patients with respiratory problems like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma.
Longer breaths can help promote relaxation and reduce the body’s response to stress, said Seneca block, who oversees most music therapy and art therapy programs in the Northeast Ohio Teaching Hospitals Health System. This is why practices like yoga and meditation focus so much on the breath.
And the controlled breathing required to sing or play the harmonica can help a person fully understand what it means to lengthen the exhale.
âWhen you breathe in a harmonicaâ¦ you hear a pitch,â said Block, whose team has led harmonica groups for COPD patients. âIt teaches them it’s the scorer, so they do it right. “
People with breathing problems sometimes get a “incentive spirometerâ- a medical device to help them exercise their lungs. Singing therapy works in a similar but less technical way, with notes that replace a rising and falling ball as an incentive, Block said.
Breathing incentives with vocals and wind instruments have been linked to better sleep, less shortness of breath and a brighter mood, said Joanne loewy, director of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Mount Sinai Health System in New York.
Loewy leads a choir of recovering patients. It may sound like any other choir at times, “but between songs we can focus on the memory,” she said. “We’re constantly looking for ways to help people stay good with music.”
Researchers are starting to investigate whether these same therapies can also help patients recover from covid.
At the beginning of August, about a month after my recovery, I heard of such a program developed in England called ENO breathe. In the pilot program, 12 participants learned breathing and singing exercises based on the techniques of professional singers. At the end of the trial, most of the participants reported an improvement in their shortness of breath and a decrease in anxiety.
Having first experienced breathing exercises in choirs, I thought ENO Breathe made sense. Singing warm-ups can help prepare the body for sustained exhalations. Diaphragm breathing – a muscle separating the chest and abdomen – is how singers get more air into their lungs to support the power and length of their notes.
Loewy’s team and Mount Sinai’s Center for Post-COVID Care plan to launch a year-long study on how weekly virtual group music therapy could improve respiratory symptoms, depression, anxiety, quality of life, fatigue, sleep and resilience in patients with long illness issues.
The University of Limerick in Ireland is running a similar study in order to retrain the muscles used for breathing.
“Peace in chaos”
I turned to music for help in a less clinical capacity, but I’m not the only person with persistent covid symptoms to do so.
When Danielle Rees, 34, of Tucson, Ariz., Heard about a life support program used by many other “long haul,” it reminded her of singing, so she released CDs from her choir. of high school and started singing, “because it’s more fun than trying to inhale and exhale for 10 minutes.”
Singing an entire song again makes her feel accomplished, just like playing the piano, something she hadn’t done since elementary school.
âWhen I felt like playing the piano, I was able to sit down and make it,â Rees said. “This, to me, was a great sign that my brain was working again.”
I’ve heard from other long-haulers struggling with cognitive challenges, often referred to as âbrain fog,â who hope that learning to play a new musical instrument themselves will help them cope. Others sing, play instruments, or just listen to music to bring some normalcy back into their lives and help them find solace in the face of the anger and angst of a long covid.
Music therapists say it’s difficult to separate the intertwined physical and psychological benefits of their work because of the way the mind and body are connected.
I’m not sure if singing despite my shortness of breath last October just calmed me down or made my lungs work better. I suspect this has helped on both fronts.
Dona nobis pacem #SongsOfComfort pic.twitter.com/llIpE8MRPw
– Lydia Zuraw (@lydiazuraw) March 31, 2020
Music helps fight anxiety and stress caused by a lack of socialization, said Block of University Hospitals in Ohio. âMusic, historically, has been something that has always been really amazing in bringing people together and kind of creating a social context in itself,â he said.
Due to internet latencies, synchronization of voices or musical instruments is practically impossible on Zoom. I spent my virtual choir rehearsals muted, singing with an instructor or recording, unable to hear anyone else in the choir doing the same at home.
During the eight months we recorded ourselves singing what we learned and sent these recordings to the conductors, who edited them together. At our last gathering in April, we listened to all the collaborations in a Zoom concert.
When I first learn a song, I miss the sensation when my vocal cords finally snap into the right note and hear it against the backdrop of the harmonies around me. I miss the energy you give and take with the people around you during a performance.
A virtual choir might not be the same as it was in person, but due to the isolation, stress, and physical limitations, I was deeply grateful that I had it.
âIn these times of great stress and great anxiety, things like music and the arts are becoming even more important to people,â Block said. “It helps to maintain a sense of hope and a sense of peace in the chaos.”
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Health Line, an editorially independent service of the California Healthcare Foundation.