‘Singing has helped me to cope and to come through’

WHEN Rachel Brand discovered she had a brain tumour, her life was turned upside down. The management consultant, who is in her 30s, underwent surgery. Yet two years later, she had to cope with the news that the tumour was growing back and that she faced more surgery followed by radiotherapy. Not surprisingly, she has struggled with feelings of depression and isolation. But Rachel's saving grace has been a surprising one - singing. During a period off work after her first diagnosis she decided to pursue her love of jazz and singing, an interest she had put to one side for many years. Soon she found herself heading north from her London home to Edinburgh where she took a five-day course with jazz vocalists and teachers Fionna Duncan and Sophie Bancroft. It changed her life.

“I had a really brilliant time and I was just bitten by it,” she says. This was in 2002 and Rachel pursued her new interest at an evening class in London.

After another workshop in Edinburgh, she was encouraged by her evening class tutor to apply for the prestigious Guildhall School of Music as a postgraduate and was accepted.

Then came the news that her tumour had grown. “I felt dreadful. I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t do anything, ” she says.

However, she enlisted for a residential course with Bancroft and Duncan supported by pianist Brian Kellock earlier this year and found in the run-up to it that her voice returned.

“Singing has helped me to cope and to come through, ” Rachel explains. “It is a way of exploring emotion, a way of letting emotion out safely so that it is not locked into you and doesn’t come out as anger or violence or whatever.”

The course, held in a private house in Pathhead, East Lothian, was, she says, a hugely supportive environment which helped to restore her confidence. She now plans to start at the Guildhall in September and returns north for the Glasgow jazz festival this summer – as a performer.

Bancroft is a big believer in the healing power of music. Primarily a professional musician who, as well as three solo albums, cowrote a song on the soundtrack of the US TV drama Six Feet Under, she is also a singing teacher and therapist, exploring the potential of music, not just as entertainment, but as a means of helping people to tap inner strengths and a sense of individuality. She uses jazz and improvisation techniques for building confidence and team work skills as well as for fostering a sense of wellbeing.

Recently, Bancroft has been employed by organisations such as Standard Life and a group of GPs to come in and do singing sessions. She asks people to experiment with noises and rhythm, a technique which she finds is a leveller as it means that both those who do and those who don’t sing often, start with the same feeling of being on unfamiliar territory.

“I have never met anyone who couldn’t sing but a lot of people have got the idea that it’s not something they can do, ” she says. Going round the group doing scat singing, she says, can feel “a bit like jumping off a cliff” but once people do it they realise they can. “You have to be in quite a centred place and quite a relaxed place to sound good, ” says Bancroft.

Working with the group sound, she believes, can have positive effects on the way people relate to each other and work together. There is a particular sound, she believes, which is unique to each set of people she works with.

Bancroft also regards songs and singing as being powerfully linked to memory and emotion.

On one project, she worked with people with dementia singing songs from their youth.
“People who couldn’t speak would suddenly start singing songs. It was amazing, ”
Bancroft says.

Another frequent pupil at Bancroft’s classes, Sian Richards, describes singing with a group as “a workout for the soul”. She says: “Singing is an incredibly uplifting experience.

It transcends the aloneness of day-to-day life and suddenly you are creating something bigger than the sum of its parts. The energy produced is exhilarating and the sound must have some kind of vibrational effect on us which makes you ‘zing’ a bit.

“I have sometimes gone into a singing class feeling terribly upset or stressed about something and the process of focusing on breathing, sound, rhythm and creating a wonderful piece of music with others, brings me right out of whatever gloom I came in with.”

The Scottish Herald
February 21st 2005