Sophie Boyd is a researcher and choir leader specialising in the health and wellbeing impacts of group singing, particularly in relation to breath/lessness.
On a cold, sunny autumn day on the 12th of November, a field in Pollok Country Park resonated with the sound of 40 people’s voices. Unsure quite what to expect, they had gathered for an outdoor singing session led by Louise Macdonald and Sophie Boyd and organised with the kind help of Professor Kirsteen McCue. Hosted by the Dear Green Bothy, in partnership with the Spheres of Singing Arts Lab Theme, the event formed part of the Being Human Festival of Humanities. As the organisers, Louise, Kirsteen and I didn’t quite know what to expect either. The Eventbrite page had filled up to capacity, but you never quite know who will turn up on the day. At 2 pm, Louise and I headed to the Burrell Museum entrance to gather the attendees while Kirsteen waited a 5-minute walk away in the field. At 2.10 pm, Kirsteen, still on her own in the field, grew concerned. Had no one turned up? Then suddenly, through the trees emerged a long winding stream of people of all ages, curious about the event and excited to start singing. We formed a semi-circle and began warming-up our bodies and voices, taking deep breaths in the cold air, all ready to sing.
There are many practices attached to outdoor singing that we might be familiar with – carol singing being a popular one, but we also have wassailing, protest songs sung at marches or picket lines, and songs sung around campfires, to name a few. Over the pandemic, many choirs moved their practice outside to prevent the spread of illness, introducing many people to outdoor singing for the first time. Singing outside also has an interesting link with Glasgow’s social history, where singing in parks and public spaces was illegal between 1922 and 1932 during the Red Clydeside era because songs were used in political activism.
For this singing workshop, Louise and I chose songs that would be easy to learn and connected to nature and the theme of being outside. We started with a short round that is very popular with community choirs – I walked to the end of the road. It’s a song that encompasses a jazzy tune and a theme of enjoying the sun and blue skies while out walking, aimed to get us moving and singing and to relax into the singing experience.
Throughout the workshop we asked participants to take time to notice their surroundings, to listen to the sounds around them, the feeling of the cold air in their lungs, and to tune-into the voices of those around them. Many participants kindly took part in a feedback form following the event, to let us know about their experiences of singing outside and what they noticed. Key words from the responses are summarised in the word cloud below.
Many people commented that singing outside was quite a new experience, especially in a relaxed setting:
It felt good, a sense of freedom.
I have sung outside before but it was a less conscious experience because we focussed on singing, not the fact that we were outside.
Was really lovely despite the cold. First time that I’ve been part of a group activity singing in nature.
It was fun to sing in a group again.
I loved being outdoors in fresh air and in a beautiful setting.
Another person commented on the novelty of singing outside in a mixed-aged group:
I enjoyed being in the park and feeling the cold air on my face. It is as definitely different to other singing experiences which have been indoors. I loved that there were people of different ages coming together too.
While singing outside was commonplace during the peak of the pandemic, nearly all singing practices have moved back indoors. However, it is important to remember that these indoor singing spaces can still feel inaccessible to some. One person’s feedback recognised the role of our outdoor workshop in helping them to access singing again:
I was really happy to find an outside singing activity. I have wanted to get back into singing but do not want to do indoors due to COVID. I have found that since 2021 everything has moved back indoors for 9 months of the year, so it was nice to have an outdoor activity in November.
Of course, singing in the park is not a usual activity to do, and this is reflected in experiences of the space of the park field being reshaped into a space for song and focusing on nature:
I visit that field daily but I have never stood there for that long and it was a new experience to sing there.
At first I was a bit self-conscious being in a public space with a group of people I did not know and onlookers wandering around us. Then as we moved away and formed a circle, all that disappeared, and the enjoyment of singing outdoors could become the focus.
With the focus of the workshop being the interconnectedness of the singing body with the natural world around it, many workshop attendees commented that they enjoyed having the space to notice their environment. During the workshop we moved across the field to a grove of trees, experimenting with hearing our voices sounding in different spaces. In the trees, we sang a song about nightingales. The song is a Haiku by Ian Heywood :
Nightingales are here
Sing they must and sing they do,
I know how that feels.
Participant feedback reflected that singing in the trees offered the opportunity to interact with the space and each other acoustically:
I loved the big space above and around us. Being by the trees made it feel more intimate as we listened to the sounds and each other.
Because we were asked to sense the sound of the trees I enjoyed hearing the leaves and the wind and I was aware of and enjoyed the clear skies and the fresh air very much.
Singing amongst the trees certainly offered an interesting singing experience that was quite different to singing in the open field, and the harmonies of the round resonated through the space beautifully.
The third song we sang was a yoik, which is a Sami reindeer herding song. In Northern Finland, reindeer herds roam freely, and yoiks are used to call them back. Ole LeLoila seemed a fitting song to sing outdoors as it explored outdoor singing practices from other cultures. And perhaps the highland cows of Pollok Park might have enjoyed it too. During this song, we focused on casting our voices out far, singing loudly, with the imagined aim of reaching far-off herds of reindeer. Singing outside can be really challenging because of the lack of acoustic feedback that you get while singing indoors. It is hard to know what your voice sounds like as it seemingly disappears into the wind. However, participants embraced this challenge, enjoying the freedom of singing loudly:
At first, being outdoors, it was harder to hear if you were in harmony with others because our voices ‘disappeared ’ into the air. In a strange way, it freed me up to sing a bit louder than I would have in a room.
The acoustics is different so you needed to concentrate more on listening to each other and/or find a ‘lead’ voice.
Singing with others always helps to uplift my voice. I enjoy singing but am not always confident about my voice….. Singing with others helps to carry my voice and I feel less self- conscious which then means I am more likely to sing louder.
Breathing exercises were woven in across the workshop to encourage participants to tune into their breath and notice the experience of breathing the fresh air of the park. Singing and breathing are very intimately connected. The sung sound we hear is the resonance of our outbreath passing through the vocal folds and out into the air around us. This interconnection of breath, body, and space has been the focus of my research, and I was really interested in exploring singing outside as a way of engaging with breath. I am also a trained singing-for-lung-health facilitator, and I lead a singing-for-breathing group in Dennistoun for people living with respiratory illness. I was keen to use breathing exercises and techniques from this setting at the outdoor workshop to encourage deep-breathing practice (sometimes called diaphragmatic breathing), to encourage participants to think a bit more about their breathing while we were singing.
With it being such a cold day, some participants commented that breathing the cold air was quite challenging and being bundled up in clothes created somewhat of a barrier to being able to engage with their breathing muscles. Other participants reflected that the breathing exercises helped them to be more aware of their breathing:
I liked the breathing exercises before singing. It was good to focus on the breath and draw in the cold air. I’m not sure that I thought about my breath differently but I enjoyed having the time to stop and focus on my breath.
It made me more aware of the relationship between my breath, the fresh air and my body.
I felt more open to the air going in, particularly after the movement beforehand.
I do yoga regularly so some of the breathing and movement was familiar.
An aim of the workshop was to highlight our right to breathe clean air, as established by the UN. Our final song encompassed group singing as an act of solidarity and togetherness. We Shall Overcome is a well-known Civil Rights anthem that has been sung and adapted across various settings and situations. Singing this song was a recognition of the difficulties happening in the world at the moment and how a group of strangers singing together could be an act of hope and solidarity. We also offered a final set of words in recognition of our right to breathe clean air:
We shall breathe clean air
We shall breathe clean air
We shall breathe clean air some day
Oh deep in my heart, I do believe
We shall breathe clean air some day.
The afternoon of singing in the park offered an activity that brought together a mixed group of people to learn new songs and to reflect on this natural space within the city. It was a moment to pause and take-stock of the weather, air, trees and birds and attendees were enthusiastic in recognising the novelty of this experience:
There was something quite uplifting about singing with other people in such a beautiful park on such a beautiful day.
I loved looking up at the sky whilst singing.
The event reminded me of paying more attention to seeing and hearing nature which I tend to forget in everyday life.
I really enjoyed the experience of it all! It was a unique and uplifting afternoon, one of joyful connectedness and belonging. Wonderful being one with the sounds in nature!
At the end of the session, we warmed up with hot chocolate and biscuits that had been organised as part of the event. It was the perfect way to reflect informally with everyone who had taken part, who enthusiastically requested for future singing events in the park- preferrable in warmer months!
I think there should be outdoor singing in different parks every week. Or even pop-up singing events….
The event illustrated the potential for singing to offer us a way to engage with our natural surroundings in a creative way. Singing enable us to celebrate the open green space, the cold, fresh air, the trees, the sound of the wind, birdsong, and the uplifting company of strangers. And while it was cold, it offered the opportunity to enjoy being outside in the darkening afternoon and challenging weather. Glasgow has huge air pollution issues and green spaces such as parks offer spaces of relief where clean air can be accessed. Perhaps then, singing outside in parks should be incorporated into healthy living practices in the city to help us to spend more time noticing our natural environment and actively breathing clean air. Participatory arts engagement could be shaped as a method for raising awareness of air pollution challenges, as has been shown in research undertaken in Nairobi. Future singing workshops could build a community of practice that could inspire collective action at a local level to raise awareness of air pollution issues. Doing so could help us to explore new and creative practices for engaging with our dear green spaces and air in Glasgow.