Last week I went to the first performance of a choir. This choir was a little different from most choirs – they couldn’t speak. Each of them had lost the ability to speak to some degree through stroke or brain injury. But they could sing.
One man stood at the front and sang American Pie. His normal speech is unintelligible, but he sang this familiar classic clearly. The choir and the audience joined in the chorus.
The audience was, for the most part, family and friends. Small children, wives, adult children – some hadn’t heard their loved one speak in years, and yet there they were singing.
A staple of the self-help gurus is the saying “you are only using 10% of your brain capacity”. Clearly this is untrue, it’s a sales pitch – but we are only just beginning to understand the possibilities that brain science might bring.
The old view of the brain was that it was hardwired. A fixed neuronal circuitry which, like an electrical circuit, if broken, remained broken. If a circuit was broken, then you lost that function. Now there is a better understanding of brain plasticity. When one section of the brain is unable to perform, another area may be able to take over the same function.
Similarly, people who have lost the ability to speak, may still be able to sing. Speech is controlled by the left side of the brain, whereas singing is shared by both hemispheres. The functions seem the same – the ability to communicate through enunciation of words. But because different areas of the brain are involved, if the speech centre is damaged through trauma, they may still be able to sing. And through practice, some may be able to slow their singing so that it comes out of their mouth as speech. The inspiration for the Adelaide choir, a Melbourne woman called Wendy Lyons, calls it “singing in your head”.
At the very least, the choir participants are enjoying a social outing. They also get breathing training, posture training, which can affect their health, sense of taste and wellbeing, all through a therapy session which is actually fun, and in which they want to participate.
And occasionally, a miracle occurs.
Retune Choir is a joint venture by Talkback SA, Stroke SA and Hampstead Rehabilitation Centre. Proudly supported by the City of Port Adelaide Enfield.