Elizabeth Cohoe introduced our speakers this morning. Holly Gwynne - Timothy is the Artistic Director of Melos Choir, and has a great history with music. What you may not know is that her knowledge extends to the actual functioning of the human voice. And with Holly was Julia Davies, a social worker for the Cancer Center of South Eastern Ontario. She overseas a lot of the therapeutic programming for their clients, so together they're going to talk about the project called Finding Our Voice, a program that was partially funded through our Community Grants process in the fall of 2019.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak. Um, I really appreciate it. And obviously we very much appreciated the grant that you provided. I'm Julia Davis. I'm one of the social workers at the Cancer Center here in Kingston. There are four social workers at the Cancer Center, and more recently I have been involved in trying to look at some more alternative type of therapeutic groups for our patients. Ideally what I wanted to try and do is not to have groups at the Cancer Center. We found historically that groups are not well attended at the Cancer Center, and really that I feel came from the fact that people spend enough time there having treatment and multiple appointments that, really, who wants to come to the Cancer Center.  I started to think about the idea of, well, why don't we have more groups in the community and move? The attendance would be better as well as being much more therapeutic for someone. Often the Cancer Center can be really triggering to people. Often people who have finished their treatment do not want to go back there unless they absolutely have to, which, I'm sure we can all really understand. So when I started to think about alternative groups I came across an article from out of the UK actually written in collaboration with the Welsh Cancer charity, who did some reach research into the therapeutic value of singing. So I thought, well, why not have a singing group?
I asked Holly if she was interested in it, and in her usual style. Holly was immediately enthusiastic and it actually didn't take much organizing. We found a venue, Holly was on board and it was publicized through the Communications Department at the hospital. It was really good. We started off using the Tett Center as our venue a couple of years ago in the fall and we got good attendance. What I what I found with the group from a social perspective is that it's really worked. The feedback we've had is that people have really appreciated that it's been off site - not been at the Cancer Center. Anecdotally, I think it's ticked the mental health box for a lot of people. I think a lot of people after treatment become quite isolated socially. A lot of confidence is gone and so it was really quite good to get people physically out to an event. It was really good that it became part of people's routine and Monday night they came to singing. WhatI really loved is we got a really great cross section of people. I think at one point our youngest member was 29 and our oldest was in her 80s. We struggled a little bit with getting men along,  but I think at one point we had 4 four men and on average. On a on a really good night we'd maybe have about 13 people out. Sometimes people really struggle with stamina and with ongoing side effects of treatment, so there was never any pressure for people. Holly and I made it really clear that it wasn't exactly a drop in, but you really didn't have to make any kind of firm commitment and we were always really pleased to see people whenever they could attend. Another really nice thing that we did was we moved from the Tett Center to St. Paul’s Anglican church on Montreal and Queen. The church was a really lovely facility for people and from my perspective it was really nice. Halfway through we all had tea and there was an opportunity for people to speak during that time. We when we took breaks it was really interesting because I think what people really liked about the group was it wasn't all about cancer.
Being a non-musical person, it was very interesting to me because I think when I started the group I had in my head I would be the Social Work person there and of course I wouldn't sing and then the first day it dawned on me like obviously I would sing as well. I think for the people who came were maybe a bit shy and you do make yourself a bit vulnerable when you haven't ever done any choir singing or any group singing. We did have a sort of festive group. Members of Melos joined us and we had some festive singing at the Cancer Center last December. Families came and sat and listened as well.
I have so many memories of sitting in my office, speaking with people who were really struggling with mental health and not knowing what to do and I would say to them all, why don’t you come to the singing group?  it was a very good project and to my mind very successful and patients are talking about it to me now and they really miss the group and the sense of camaraderie, but mostly actually really are missing singing.
It’s a little hard after six months of quarantine and no singing to just suddenly feel such a flood of gratitude and memories about this experience of working with Julia and her clients at the Cancer Center. You know, she's a great listener, but also now I know a great speaker and she's good singer. I do want to say that I've worked in my with people with damaged voices or impaired voices. I've had the privilege of working with a couple of people with cancer, some people post-stroke, but this was my first time in a group setting and it was also my first time kind of being connected to such people as a complete stranger. Other times that I've had the chance to work with these people, they've come to me through a known connection and there's been a little bit of safety for them in jumping into the agreement to sing My main goal was to work on functional vocal exercises that would restore the autonomic reflexes in the vocal tract. These are things that we don't think about much unless we start to lose our speaking voice. The main thing is frustration and difficulty communicating feelings and thoughts to their loved ones and colleagues. This is one of the things with cancer treatment. It's such a shock to the system and a lot of the overt physiological elements of cancer treatment are exceedingly damaging to the vocal tract. On top of that, we had people in the group, some of whom had throat, cancer, lung cancer, Esophageal cancer and brain cancer. All of which were accompanied by surgeries which were extremely invasive, so you can begin to imagine the sorts of anxieties they had around their bodies and the frustrations from things they were in the in the middle of experiencing or had recently experienced. So I was pretty nervous about working with a mixed group. We had someone in the group who'd been singing all her life, and then a couple of professionals who came through one right on the heels of treatment for throat cancer and so we had others who had never opened their mouths to sing. That mixture really in a sense, helped the emotional tenor of the group. The levelling factor was cancer, so the desire to find something optimistic and forward moving and the desire not to dwell on anything negative or frustrating was important. So my challenge in setting the exercises was not to push them into that zone of fatigue and frustration, but to allow exercises that would enable their bodies to generate sound more effortlessly. I would say I had pretty good success rate and I certainly got some amazing feedback from people about sensations, of improved breathing, phonation, and developing a singing voice. I had one or two that I felt I couldn't help in the physiological sense, who week after week reported “wow, my voice still doesn't sustain itself”, but I think Julia touched on the communal benefits, the emotional benefits the pure joy we had. There was never any shame, never any sense that one should be improving. Even when you're singing without cancer, you have to take each day as it comes, because the voice is a mirror of so many things - what you've eaten, how much sleep you've had, your emotions, allergies in any number of things can affect the voice on a given day, so one must always take what's given to you on a given day and in that spirit, I led the group and encouraged them to be gentle in their judgements about the sounds they were making and how they were feeling. So it was a really a true privilege and I want to thank the Rotary for everything you did to support this endeavour.
Holly then read a couple of very heartfelt letters from a couple of the participants in the group.
In response to questions, Holly told us that the group hopes to resume once Covid restrictions are eased.  In the future a more distinct division between those only interested in the Monday night group and those wanting a collaboration with Melos will be pursued. They hope to continue performing at the Cancer Center as well because that was very satisfying to both the group and the patients.
The program received funding from several sources but both Julia and Holly are confident that funding for the group can be secured from various sources.
As said by one of our members, we can all be proud of the funding we provided for this great program.
Bill Egnatoff thanked Julia and Holly for a great presentation.