The Challenges of Singing with Asthma

Singing has become such a big part of my life, and one that gives me so much pleasure and joy, that not being able to do it would be a big blow, indeed. Recently, I have come face to face with just how important singing is to me, and what its loss would mean.

Not long ago, my asthma specialist prescribed an inhaled steroid to deal with my worsening asthma. Though I thought the prescribed amount (two puffs in the morning, two in the evening), to be somewhat excessive, I was looking forward to the positive impact it would have on my singing. Having asthma, and despite knowing and employing methods of breath support, I often run out of air on long passages and have to take a breath in inopportune places in the music. With improved lung function thanks to the inhaler, I figured, I wouldn’t run out of air as easily, and my singing would improve.

Alas! Even before enough time had elapsed to get this hypothetical benefit, I encountered some major problems: My voice had become hoarse, my vocal range had gotten lower and I could no longer hit the higher notes in what had been my range. I went online and checked out the side effects of the medicine I was using and, sure enough, hoarseness and diminished vocal range were common ones listed. Darn! Then I decided to research other inhaled steroids and found that pretty much all of them can cause the same problems. Next, I searched for comments from singers with asthma who have experienced voice problems from inhaled steroids, and found plenty—a plethora of comments from singers with these problems—but precious little by way of solutions. Now what?

The bottom line is this: Singing is so important to me that I cannot give it up just to have improved lung function. I’m trying everything I can think of to counteract the hoarseness—gargling after each use of my inhaler, drinking warm water (suggested by a member in my choral group member who is struggling with the same issue), skipping doses on rehearsal days or when I plan to sing—with limited success so far. If it comes down to a choice between singing and improved lung function, there’s no contest: Singing wins, since it’s something that gives me real joy, and a world without singing is no world for me.

There is a ray of hope, though. While doing some more online searching, I discovered a brand of inhaled steroid that may be just the kind of medicine I’ve been looking for. According to what I’ve read, the steroid, Alvesco, activates only when it encounters enzymes in the lung, and therefore shouldn’t cause the kind of hoarseness and lowering of range I’ve been experiencing. I have an appointment with my doctor coming up, and I’ll ask for a prescription. I’m pinning my hopes on this medicine and will let you know how it goes. Fingers crossed!

Group Singing: Better Than Prozac!

I’ve been singing in a wonderful community choral group, the Academy Chorale, for nearly five years. No matter how tired I might be on a Tuesday evening, by the time rehearsal is over, I always leave feeling rejuvenated, energized, and uplifted. These effects have led me to research the benefits of singing, particularly singing with others.

It turns out that the mental, emotional, and physical benefits of group singing have been well documented. Group singing has been proven to relieve anxiety, lower stress, and elevate endorphins (which help relieve pain and induce feelings of pleasure and euphoria) and other neurotransmitters. Oxytocin, a hormone released during singing, has not only been found to alleviate stress and anxiety, but also to enhance feelings of bonding and trust, which may explain why studies have found that group singing lessens feelings of depression and loneliness. In fact, a year-long study on people with mental health problems, carried out by the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health in Canterbury, England, has shown the some 60 per cent of participants had less mental distress when retested a year after joining, with some people no longer fulfilling diagnostic criteria for clinical depression. That’s pretty impressive! Perhaps therapists should prescribe group singing for their patients along with antidepressants—or even in place of them! After all, there are no negative side effects of singing.

Come to think of it, these benefits at least partly (if not entirely) shed light on the feelings of bliss people report while chanting in a group. When I was in Ananda Marga, the Indian-based spiritual group I was a part of for over 18 years, one of the practices we did almost every day was chanting. At the time, none of us knew of research linking group singing to any of the benefits described above (and likely hadn’t even been done back then), so we concluded that what we had been told was the truth: the bliss we were feeling while singing and dancing was due to the power of the guru and of the mantra we were chanting. More likely, it was due to the surge of endorphins and oxytocin in our bodies.

Indeed, some studies have indicated that, when singing with others, our heart rhythms synchronize, making singing with others like a guided meditation. Researchers in Sweden have found that when we sing in unison our pulses speed up and slow down at the same rate. This synchronicity produces a sense of calm similar to the effects of yoga and is believed to be because singers coordinate their breathing, with the pulse going down when exhaling and going up when inhaling. This coordination has an overall effect of slowing the heart rate, close to the effects of yoga breathing and guided breathing, both of which have been shown to bring down blood pressure.

So when we choral group members practice and perform beautiful and uplifting music together, we not only inspire ourselves and our audiences, we also get a serious and long lasting uplift in mood—and physical benefits as well. What could be better?