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Taking New Breaths

Posted on: July 14, 2021

LA Opera Connects is adding a new program to its ever-growing rotation.

Connects teaching artists will lead free breathing and singing workshops that help UCLA patients who are struggling with lung function after contracting COVID-19.  

The pilot program (taking place via Zoom) kicked off on May 21 with its first group of participants. A limited number of patients who received pulmonary rehabilitation at UCLA after undergoing intubation for COVID-19, or those who are suffering from long-haul COVID, were introduced to different operatic exercises that are designed to support breath control and mindfulness.  

These exercises are the same ones your favorite opera singers use to train their own breath and lungs (because we all know if singing were a sport, opera singers would be the Olympians).  

“The only instrument an opera singer has is their body,” Stacy Brightman, Vice President of LA Opera Connects said in an interview with UCLA Health. “It takes years and years of that development of your instrument. It essentially is like being an Olympic athlete.” 

Our phenomenal teaching artists, Michele Patzakis and Nandani Sinhia, lead these classes alongside Rondi Charleston of Rondi Charleston Studios. Rondi was integral in bringing the Connects team and UCLA Health together to create this inspiring program. 

“It’s a program that hopefully people will adopt all over the country,” Charleston said. “It’s been such a joy to watch these long-haul patients taking their first deep breaths, some of them in a year, and to witness them grow their lung capacity and get so much joy out of singing and making music together.” 

Participants start off each session with warm-ups and mindfulness techniques, then move on to breathing exercises with visualization.  

“Imagine a technique where we’re saying, ‘Close your eyes, relax your shoulders down, lean in slightly and breathe in that rose,’” Brightman said. “It’s visualization that will help you achieve exactly what your therapist wants you to – a long, deep, calm breath.” 

In true LA Opera fashion, each class ends with an optional invitation to sing familiar songs like “Amazing Grace” and “You Are My Sunshine,” except on this “stage,” the ability to carry a tune isn’t required.  

“There’s no pressure,” Brightman said. “We have some of the most charming and loving and warm-hearted teaching artists doing this program. Folks will just come in and go, ‘This is family.’” 

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Marcelo Olavarria works with LA Opera singers to strengthen his lungs as as he recovers from COVID-19. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

Marcelo Olavarria is one of the seven original COVID-19 patients who were selected to participate in this pilot program. He told UCLA Health how these classes have raised his awareness of how to breathe for maximum intake of oxygen.  

“It’s very interesting that we breathe every day but we don’t have any idea what we’re doing,” Olavarria said during the first session in May. “This brings so much attention to the physical elements of it, especially if you’ve been sick. I’m still on oxygen, but it’s so wonderful to know what we have to do in order to get back to normal.” 

Olavarria also believes these classes are a big reason why his voice is beginning to sound clearer. 

“It’s not so hoarse,” he said. “I feel like it’s getting better, it’s getting smoother.” 

Ellen Wilson, PT, executive director of therapy services for UCLA Health said singing is a beneficial activity in recovery because it requires a forced but controlled exhalation. 

“It’s not just like breathing out, there’s resistance to the breath going out, which strengthens all those respiratory muscles,” Wilson said. “They also have to control it in order to do the right note and pace.” 

“[The program] is really meant to be an adjunct to whatever formal treatment they’re getting and a fun way to work on lung capacity without it being so clinical.” 

Read more about the program on the UCLA Health blog here and here.