STUNNING harmonies fill the room. If you close your eyes you are instantly transported from the Scout hut in Bitterne to a grand concert hall, carried there by the sounds of the Chessel Chanters.
The vocal talents of this group, with members aged from their 50s to their 80s, are impressive – but they become even more so when you realise that the group is largely made up of people with Parkinson’s Disease.
Parkinson’s affects each person differently but for many it results in speech difficulties, with some sufferers becoming so quiet they are almost inaudible.
But as Mary Shorter, one of the group’s founders and chair of Parkinson’s UK Solent Early Onset branch and Parkinson’s UK Southampton branch, explains, different parts of the brain control speech and singing, so struggling to speak doesn’t mean that someone won’t be able to sing.
In fact, she explains that one of the things that led to the group’s formation was when her husband, who had a terminal form of Parkinson’s, was sent to a speech therapist, it was discovered he had a beautiful singing voice.
Another friend had to use an electronic device to communicate as his voice was so weak but he too could sing.
“People can sing even though they can’t talk,” she says. “Singing also helps people to project their voices.”
As well as offering physical benefits, the emotional gains of coming to the group are clearly large. They see each other as not just friends but also, as Lyn O’Brien, who has been coming to the group since it formed around five years ago, explains, an extended family.
Lyn, a former champion swimmer who says her greatest regret in life was missing out on the Munich Olympics by 1.5 seconds, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the relatively young age of 44 and has been living with the disease for 16 years.
She says it took her several years to accept that she had Parkinson’s and to be willing to join groups, such as Chessel Chanters, but that it has helped her enormously.
“I’d never sung before but now I love it,” she says. “When I started I was awful. I sat and listened mostly.
But it is so joyful, the smile gets to everyone. I realised it didn’t matter if I was off key.”
One person who had no worries about his singing ability was 79-yearold John Masters, a former professional singer who sang in a vocal quartet from 1955 to 1962, supporting the likes of Howard Keel and Diana Dors.
“This is great – much better than medicine,” he says of the group.
“My wife says I look much better when I get home afterwards. I came because I had heard singing was good for people with Parkinson’s and we always have a laugh.”
The group generally give a couple of performances a year.
“It’s lovely to be performing again,” he says. “Singing is in my blood.”
One of the group’s newest recruits is 80-year-old Gordon Ward.
Before joining the group five weeks ago he hadn’t sung in public since he was in the church choir as a child.
“My wife can never hear me because I speak so softly,” he says.
“The singing is helping me get more control over my voice.”
Mary adds: “People think of Parkinson’s as an old man’s illness, but one in 20 people is under 40 when they’re diagnosed.
“It’s a much larger percentage of the population than people realise.
The important thing is that you don’t let it take your life over.
“If people sit at home and become isolated they can go downhill – they lose their balance and so on. Coming to things like this can be hugely beneficial.
It’s just a case of getting them through the door for the first time.”
Chessel Chanters are always looking for new members. For more information about the group, as well as other activities in the area for people with Parkinson’s or to make a donation to the running costs of the group, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 023 8044 9652 or 07702 905547.