People with Parkinson's: The remarkable effect of singing

By Audition Oracle – Sun 12 Feb 2017 @ 12:58

This weeks guest blog post comes from soprano Nicola Wydenbach on the positive effect of singing when living with Parkinson's disease.

Nicola Wydenbach

People with Parkinson's: The remarkable effect of singing

So, how does a soprano who has been spent a large part of her adult life pretending to be characters including Russian mothers, fisherman’s wives, football hooligans, and of course many different manifestations of drably dressed peasants, find herself now as a champion of singing for people with Parkinson’s? Here is my story.

It was whilst studying for my degree in History that I realised my true passion lay in music, and in particular singing. An undergraduate degree at Trinity and a Postgraduate at the Royal College of Music followed. After graduating, I started regularly freelancing in big choruses for companies such as English National Opera, Scottish Opera, Opera Holland Park, Aldeburgh and Bregenz Opera. Combined with this were numerous small roles, session work, consort work as well as professional solo oratorio work. I love my singing work and still do. 2016 certainly had some musical highlights, and one that has stuck with me was singing and recording Rossini’s opera Semiramide with Opera Rara.

However, as much as I have enjoyed preforming I have always been fascinated by the power of music.  We all acknowledge the power of music to entertain, move and thrill us, but one question has driven me over the past decade or so - can its power be even more far reaching?

A friend mentioned in 2005 that she was going on a ‘Training for Education’ Course at Aldeburgh Music (sadly they no longer run this fantastic course). It was a revelation. We learnt how to run workshops, using music and song in a way that I had not seen or experienced before. I also learnt so much about myself as a performer and facilitator. I was hooked.  At the course I met the artistic leader of Streetwise opera: This organisation is an award-winning charity that uses music to help people make positive changes in their lives. In particular they work with people who have experienced homelessness and other members of the community. I started freelancing with this charity soon after finishing the ‘Training for Education’ course. I still do now, having led workshops for over ten years. My experiences since have also enabled me to freelance as a workshop leader on projects for many of the leading arts organisations.  

About seven years ago my father-in-law was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. 1 in 500 people are living with Parkinson's. This number rises to over 1 in 100 for the over 60's. Although we think of shaking as the main symptom of Parkinson's there are many different manifestations including problems with freezing, gait issues and the weakening of the voice. One day I was round at my in-law’s house when he was having his Speech Therapy sessions. I noticed that many of his exercises were comparable to how I warmed up as a singer. So I wondered if people with Parkinson’s (PWP) might benefit from singing. I Googled “Singing and Parkinson’s”.

Now, I would love to claim that I had fallen on an amazing discovery, but I quickly came to the realization that others had already figured out this connection - the idea that singing could take over from where speech therapy has left off. There also appeared to be some research, which found that the benefits of singing for PWP include an overall sense of wellbeing, communication, cognition and understanding, living in the world with others, but most importantly an improvement of physical ability. The mechanical processes of singing can help to support physical functions in people with Parkinson’s. These include muscular exercises to promote facial, throat and chest muscle mobility, and vocal clarity, strength and production; deep-breathing to encourage improved lung capacity; and postural exercises, encouraging improved stability on standing and regulating walking pace. Singing activities may generally help to counter the consequences of a diminishing mobility.

However, considering there are 1 in 500 people who have the condition, the reach of this work was little. There just were not enough groups. It also struck me that there was no cohesion to this work. Plus, as a musician, first and foremost, I wanted to make sure the standard of the music provision received by PWP was as high as it could be.

So I was determined to learn more. I won a scholarship form the Finzi Trust in 2014 to go and visit a pioneering organisation in this field called the Tremble Clefs.  The Tremble Clefs were started in 1994. I was lucky enough to travel to California for two weeks of observation. There, I saw three Tremble Clefs groups in Laguna Wood, San Diego and Encinitas. I also met Karen Helsey, who had the brilliant idea to extend PWP’s speech therapy exercise through song.

I also visited speech therapists and other Parkinson’s singing groups in the UK. One of these was Pimlico Skylarks run by Professor Grenville Hancox as part of his Canterbury Cantata Trust. Grenville has now become a mentor and colleague for me, alongside his colleague Dr. Trish Vella Burrows, Deputy Director of the Sydney De Haan Research Centre, Christ Church University.

Cantata Trust

All these encounters and meetings provided me with a large amount of knowledge and experience of singing for PWP, and strengthened even more my belief that there needed to be some training or sharing for existing leaders or potential leaders.

I was then lucky enough to win an ongoing Aldeburgh residency, and have now been running training courses for musicians as potential leaders for the last two years. This January we had over 36 participants, with many returning from the previous year after having set up their own groups across the UK. We also had practitioners from Australia and Ireland.

I have now taken over Grenville’s Pimlico group and I also run another group in Chatham. I am also involved in a research project in Medway as well as setting up another Parkinson’s group in Kings College London. Most excitingly of all, Grenville and I are now in the process of launching a national umbrella organisation - Sing to Beat Parkinson’s.

Exciting times seem to be ahead, and there is momentum for every branch of Parkinson’s UK to have their own singing group for PWP.

Not bad for someone who has spent most of her life messing around in costumes!

Follow my journey at

To read more about Nicola's work as a professional soprano, please visit