Saturday 20 October 2018

Mary Kenny: Songs of praise

What the doctor ordered? Singing lessons…

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

The wages of sin for 40 years of smoking is a wheezing chest and a possible diagnosis of a COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). When I was informed that I had a condition called bronchiectasis, a consultant at one of London's leading chest hospitals told me to go and join a choir, or take singing lessons. Singing, he said, was one of the best things you can do for your chest.

I'd tried learning singing before, but the teacher wasn't quite right for me. She was pleasant, and competent, but probably too young to teach an old dog new tricks. In any one-to-one situation, it's important to find the right teacher, and this year I did. Avril Gray is a retired diva in her 70s of the great bel canto tradition: she has the authority and command of someone who has sung at Covent Garden, at the Paris Opera and in Milan (with Tito Gobbi). She teaches singing to students of all ages - this is in Kent - and she also coaches people who do public speaking. The same exercises which train singers also help with speaking.

Breathing exercises are always the beginning of the half-hour regular lesson. You put your hand on your tummy and pant like a dog. You imagine you are blowing out a candle held at arm's length, and try to make the breath last. You put a finger over one nostril, and with mouth closed, breathe in and then out, to "Tshoo", like a train, with lips forward in kissing position. And there are many more, developing the volume and control of breath. In one exercise, you can feel the upper chamber of your lungs fill and flux as you let out the air.

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