Saturday 25 May 2019

Singing with an unusual choir in Ashford

Reporter David Medcalf found his spirits raised as he joined members of the Move4Parkinson's choir in Ashford for a quick chorus. The singers have a degenerative condition but morale is high

Dara MacMahon conducting the Move4Parkinsons Choir at the Wicklow Sings Festival at Temple Carrig School, Greystones, in April
Dara MacMahon conducting the Move4Parkinsons Choir at the Wicklow Sings Festival at Temple Carrig School, Greystones, in April
Rosemary Lambe, Wicklow Lions president Pat O’Brien, Neville Byrne and Andy Dunne and, in front, Paddy Maher, Mary Hughes and Tommy O’Sullivan in April
Lions vice-district governer Frank O’Donoghue, musical director Dara McMahon, Neville Byrne, physiotherapist Suzanne Noel and Wicklow Lions president Pat O’Brien at a cheque presentation earlier this year

The members, organisers, supporters and helpers of this choir make no apology for their undemanding schedule of work on rehearsal nights: 'We take a long tea break.'

On that they are all agreed as they tuck into the sandwiches and apple tart at the Community and Heritage Centre in Ashford. The centre with its bright walls covered in cheerful works of art has proven the perfect home for the weekly gatherings of Move4Parkinson's.

'We started four years ago with four people,' recalls musical director Dara McMahon, looking back at how her unusual assignment started. All the quartet had in common was that they shared a diagnosis of Parkinson's, hardly the most cheerful of common characteristics.

The condition is relentlessly degenerative, associated with tremors and with gradual loss of mobility and independence. While every patient is different, the disease often tends to erode vocal power, giving many of Dara's singers a real challenge every time they come under her baton.

They respond with enthusiasm and good humour, though many of them have limited or non-existent previous experience of choral work. The working of the diaphragm - the body's main engine for singing - is frequently under attack from symptoms.

The daughter of one member reports that her father feels he has to shout in order to be heard at all. The discipline of the choir cannot completely solve his problems but it does assist with posture and breath control.

'It is all about living well with Parkinson's,' explains Dara who has seen numbers grow over the years, with 28 members now on the books. 'We try to make everything fun. Everyone here is friends.'

Research tends to suggest that it is not necessary to have a life-shackling ailment in order to take benefit from song. Her experience, however, is that the force at her command takes particular heart and encouragement from their Monday night practices and occasional performances.

The choir is a break from the humdrum for people who have often been obliged to step back from much of the activity they have enjoyed over a lifetime. Besides, the singing is informally therapeutic and the evening in Ashford presents a chance to savour that scrumptious apple tart.

The Move4Parkinson's movement is actually a Dublin invention, founded by a woman called Margaret 'Mags' Mullaney in 2013. She was diagnosed at the relatively young age of 47 and responded by setting out to improve the quality of life for patients.

Activities include dance classes and exercise sessions, as well as the choirs. There are two of them, one based at Balally in Dublin which meets on Thursdays and then the Ashford group on Mondays. When Mags Mullaney put out the call for someone to take the lead in Wicklow, Greystones resident Dara was immediately drawn to respond.

'I am musical and my dad had Parkinson's - so I wanted to connect with the Parkinson's community,' she muses. The first night, when the famous four first gathered to under her baton, they assembled at the Glebe National School in Wicklow Town. The move to Ashford soon afterwards has been a very positive step with participants commuting from as far away as Bray and Arklow to join the chorus.

'I don't think of it as music therapy - I think of it as a choir,' says the musical director, setting out her professional stall. She lets slip that they have visited a studio to record three songs for Lyric FM, which (at time of writing) have yet to be broadcast to the nation by the station.

They also have regular contact with their counterparts in Balally and they have collaborated too with their young neighbours in Ashford's primary school. The combination of the children and the mainly elderly Move4Parkinson's in concert is an arresting sight.

Dara has been a leading light in the annual Wicklow Sings series which brought as many as 15 ensembles together to make music.

'The Music4Parkinson's choir always gets a standing ovation,' she notes with no little degree of satisfaction. The Wicklow Sings audience clearly understood the effort which goes into the harmonies by performers who rise above their disease to entertain their audience.

The nature of the challenges they overcome is laid out by Neville Byrne, better known as leading light over the years with the Wicklow Lions Club. He was diagnosed as having the disease in 2011, just before he was due to step into retirement.

At that time he enjoyed taking exercise regularly on the beach at Brittas Bay and he recalls going for a walk one day with his brother-in-law. His companion, a medical man, noted 'something wrong' with the way he was walking.

Neville's reaction was to laugh at any such suggestion. He felt in fine fettle - what on earth could be so wrong? However, he agreed to be referred to leading neurologist Professor Niall Tubridy, who offered a nice line in gallows humour. The way Neville remembers it, the professor delivered the results of the consultation with a wisecrack: 'The good news is, it's not motor neurone disease'.

The bad news was that he had Parkinson's, a condition that would gradually wreck his system over years. Seven years later, Neville's appearance is fine but he confesses that the tremors, the shakes, which are typical of the disease, are tough to take.

He sums up his situation: 'It's like an old car leaking oil all over the place.' To date no one had found a remedy, so the leaks will only worsen with time.

He never considered himself in any way musical until Sheila Clarke decided he should be recruited to the choir. Sheila is manager of the community centre in Ashford and a most enthusiastic hostess, organising the food for the sumptuous tea breaks.

She has adopted the choir is always on the lookout for fresh recruits and has a very persuasive way about her. When Neville's wife Marian also began telling him to enlist, there was no holding out.

'I said I can't sing,' laughs Neville - but his protests counted for nothing. He listened to the practice CDs circulated to choir members and discovered that he could, in fact, sing perfectly well.

Now he is in the line-up close to Andy Henry, who has the benefit of having served in a male voice choir and church choirs. It would be all too easy for everyone to stay at home and watch telly - but here they relish a joint endeavour guaranteed to raise the spirits.

'Sit up nice and tall,' exhorts Dara McMahon as she takes everyone through the repertoire, a blonde dynamo with an ever encouraging smile.

Listening to the group at work, some in wheelchairs, some clearly shaking, it is impossible not to invest the lyrics with emotion. Hearing the sopranos hit high notes as everyone joins in chorus 'You Raise Me Up' - the words become a poignant celebration of how humanity can ascend above adversity.

Move4Parkinson's also offers weekly physiotherapy under Suzanne Nolan but these sessions, with song-sheets gripped in quavering hands, are where the fun is. When this gang sing Abba's 'Thank You for the Music' - their all-time favourite - the gratitude is heartfelt.

At rehearsals, drivers, relations, supporters, reporters and the two transition year students from Temple Carrig School are all welcome to join in. So we do join in, and it feels like a privilege - thanks indeed for the music.

Afterwards, Dara ponders how the job of looking after the Move4 Parkinson's choir fits in with her work as a highly competent professional musician.

She has her own studio at the Greystones Vocal Academy and gives individual lessons to many aspiring soloists. She is also a performer in her own right.

However, she clearly enjoys bringing her skills to community choirs and other ventures which break out of the obvious.

Of Move4Parkinson's she observes: 'Everyone in the choir has become good friends. It is important to make it fun and to get to know the individual stories.'

Concerts give their efforts a focus, though it would not be fair to ask them to find the stamina for a two hour performance.

Instead they collaborate with others, such as the Unity Gospel Singers in Ashford to fill out a decent programme, or simply to enjoy an evening together.

'It is good to have something to work towards. We are not like a high level choir but we can make a really nice sound,' she declares proudly.

She must take into consideration that they are prone to tiring easily, none of them young and all of them subject to the unpredictable effects of the disease.

'Parkinson's affects everyone differently,' is her experience. 'Not everyone gets the tremor.'

Wicklow People