Opera singer and vocal coach Amy Steggles, BA’06 (Honours, Music), has helped many people find their voice over the years—from lawyers and receptionists looking to strengthen their delivery, to construction workers needing to project above the noise of their working environment.
Now, she’s helping a whole new group of clients find their breath: COVID-19 ‘long-haulers’, living with breathlessness and/or anxiety as a result of contracting the coronavirus.
Steggles has developed an online, eight-week course called Inhale-Exhale. The one-hour sessions are designed to help participants (re) discover their breath, improve their well-being, and connect with other people living with post-COVID syndrome.
“I’m offering an opportunity for people to intellectually and physically better understand the skill of breathing,” Steggles said from her home in Victoria, B.C. “Singing is just a fun, incidental way to practice that.”
The idea came to Steggles through a retired Victoria, B.C., nurse who was impressed by the results achieved by the English National Opera (ENO) program helping people recover from COVID-19.
The nurse suggested a need for a similar offering in Canada, inspiring Steggles to create a curriculum based on the techniques she teaches as a voice and singing coach. This week, her inaugural cohort began learning how to master the mechanics of breathing, proper posture and exercises that release tension in the mouth and the throat.
Practice means progress
Steggles uses the analogy of running and swimming to describe the rationale behind learning the principles of an act we often take for granted.
“In a certain sense, everybody knows how to run,” Steggles said. “You decide you want to walk faster, and you end up running. With swimming, you get in the water and splash about to get from point A to B.
“If you take a running clinic, you learn how your foot should hit the ground for optimal speed. You take a swimming class and learn about better strokes. Suddenly, you become a stronger runner or swimmer.”
The same is true of breathing and singing, Steggles said. She’s helped many clients improve both, with a number of them reporting a host of other benefits they never expected.
“So many clients have shared after a few weeks of lessons that the chronic back or neck pain they’ve been living with has lessened or gone away, or that their pelvic floor is stronger,” Steggles said. “Enough of them have said this, so that when this opportunity arose, it felt like things were coming full circle and that it was the right step.”
Steggles was also inspired by compelling data around those living with post-COVID syndrome and her desire to use her training to help make a difference.
“A study in the U.K. shows COVID long-haulers suffer from over 200 different symptoms,” she said. “It’s very difficult for the medical community to pin down exactly how to treat people since it’s so varied. But one of the recurring themes for many people is this breathlessness or shortness of breath. If you can’t breathe properly, you become exhausted and anxious because the thing that is supposed to be keeping you alive is not working optimally.”
Lessons through lullabies
In line with a method used by the ENO, Steggles coaches her clients to improve their breathing by singing or humming lullabies.
“Lullabies are inherently soothing,” she said. “They’re also easy to sing and part of every culture.”
In the recording below, Steggles performs the various steps of a breathing/singing exercise using the Welsh lullaby, Now the Day is Over.
The hissing sound at the beginning of the recording is intentional, and an exercise to fully exhale in order to “fill up an empty tank.” Then, Steggles hums the piece of music, which she notes as a pleasant way for participants to find the ‘centre of the sound’. In the second version, she hums to a vowel sound to help release tension in the jaw and trapezius muscles. Then, she sings the lullaby with words.(Piano, Neil Reimer)
Learning from a pro
Praised by her past students as a natural teacher, Steggles is a gifted soprano who discovered her love for opera as a teenager. She was part of a youth choir approached by Opera Hamilton, in Hamilton, Ont., when the company was seeking young voices for its production of Puccini’s Tosca.
Prior to that, “I had no idea what opera was,” Steggles said. “But I remember a sudden moment where it seemed I found what I didn’t know I was looking for. I said, ‘That’s it. I’m hooked. Opera is my thing, Puccini’s my guy.’”
After studying music at Western, the soprano performed in many notable roles in Europe and across Canada. Besides vocal coaching, Steggles is the co-founder of Fear No Opera, an opera company with a mandate to support emerging artists and make opera accessible to all.
While she never imagined using her talents to help those living with the after affects of COVID, she said, “It’s wonderful, and humbling,” to use the power of music to help others heal.
Breathing life into the next opportunity
Steggles is optimistic about the future, hoping that eventually, people living with post-COVID syndrome will get better over time. But that doesn’t mean this newfound opportunity will go away.
“I think we’re beginning to understand just how integral ‘breath’ is to living your healthy best life,” she said. “I would like to take this work into the long term and help other people who might benefit.
“When I started out, this was not the direction I saw, but I’m so very grateful it turned out this way.”