Music has always been important to me and I started recorder lessons at the age of eight with mother Mary Magdalene, a nun at my convent school. I then moved on to the violin and scraped my way through several exams and made it to the back row of the second fiddles in the local youth orchestra. However, my real passion was always singing. I enjoyed singing in the school choir, but the lack of boys was a distinct disadvantage and at the age of 15 I had to suffer the indignity of being the leading boy in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury.
Singing has always been an unconscious and compulsive habit of mine which my family have tolerated but others have found irritating. This truth came home to me as a student while working in a hospital kitchen with a group of three work-weary women. As a penance for being young and a bit too happy, they gave me the unenviable task of scrubbing soup and porridge pans. Then one day, while I was scouring and singing away, one of the staff came by asking “Is it difficult to sing like that?” I was flattered until she added “Because it’s ain’t half difficult to listen to!” I continued scrubbing and turned the volume up in defiance; this comment was not going to knock me off my perch.
When I started university I joined the King’s College Choir in London where there were tenors and basses which made singing much more interesting. Between the ages of 20 and 40, singing was my main leisure pursuit; I sang Handel’s Messiah in St Paul’s Cathedral and met my husband in a choir at Westminster Cathedral. The high point for me was when I performed Verdi’s Requiem with him in The Albert Hall. All this was in my pre-Parkinson’s days.
The diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease (PD) swept away my self-confidence and the last thing I wanted to do was to stand on stage and perform in a concert. I felt that I was unable to control my Parkinson’s symptoms which were driven mainly by unfounded anxiety. I imagined drawing attention to myself by fumbling with my score and dropping it, or worse still fainting due to low blood pressure which I had done before. It was not worth making a fool of myself and I decided to stay out of the limelight and gave up the choir in 2000. It was the leisure activity I most enjoyed and I was left with humming around the house. The frustration was most intense when sitting in the audience listening to a performance which I could have been part of; knowing the songs, note for note, and humming them quietly to myself.
Early this year I heard of a choir which would be ideal for me and a friend who also had PD who was keen to start singing again. The conductor was most welcoming and appreciative of Parkinson’s symptoms and the two of us became members. He is a pianist and a singer with an excellent baritone voice who can demonstrate how to use our voices effectively. There are many aspects of singing which are therapeutic; it has begun to help me with verbal articulation, intonation and volume which all require diaphragm and breath control. I now have more power in my voice, my breathing is less shallow and as a soprano I can reach those top notes once again. Following the score and sight reading are skills that I have revived, and this mental discipline is another benefit of singing.
Rehearsals start at 19:30 and end 2 hours later – this requires stamina and a fair amount of forward planning. To avoid going ‘off’ during the evening, I take my medication on an empty stomach half an hour before the rehearsal, have a drink in the break and have my evening meal when I get home. Although rehearsals are long and demanding, I feel full of enthusiasm at the end of the evening and the reward far outweighs the effort. Singing is like a tonic – it results in the release of endorphins and, like eating curry or taking exercise, it makes me feel good.
Singing is one of my alternative therapies for PD and rejoining a choir has been a boost to my morale. I now realise that it is possible to revive old interests and to succeed in spite of PD, and performing in a choral concert in May will be a major triumph for me.
I experienced the symptoms of Parkinson's disease (PD) during my 40s and was diagnosed in 2000 at the age of 47. At the time I worked as a lecturer in a further education college where I was in charge of geography and environmental sciences, and was Senior Tutor to 250 students. I also held the post of Deputy Chief Examiner in geography for the International Baccalaureate and ran training courses for teachers in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. I worked with PD for 6 years and finally retired in 2006. Since retiring, I have setup a support group for those with young onset Parkinson's in the Reading area. I write in my spare time and have published three geography textbooks.
I have three grown-up children who have all left home and I live with my husband, two fat cats and five tortoises. My hobbies are photography, gardening and breeding tortoises and my philosophy is: "there's no time like the present".