Art project uses music to assist recovery of patients

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A decade after his last performance as actor and operetta singer with the Greek National Opera, Georgios Sochos stands confidently on the main stage of the 19th century Ziller Building of the National Theater of Greece in central Athens, practicing breathing exercises before singing, again.

In April, Sochos contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized for two weeks. Two long months later he was still living with symptoms, and singing was the last thing on his mind.

"I was exhausted, and there was also this sense of insecurity and fear due to hospitalization and the illness," he says. "I was definitely affected psychologically."

Sochos performed recently in a conference of Greek pulmonologists together with other participants in a program organized by the National Theater of Greece for people recovering from COVID-19.

Inspired by a similar project run by the English National Opera in London, the National Theater of Greece launched in May a free-of-charge online program developed by a team of experts to assist people suffering from breathlessness and stress. The aim is to use singing to ease their breathing.

Thirty patients have benefited to date, and as the program expands, thanks to funding provided by pharmaceutical companies, the goal is to support 100 people this year, says Sofia Vienopoulou, head of the Young Peoples' Stage of the National Theater of Greece.

"It has been rewarding to see people who have struggled with post-COVID symptoms find relief," she says.

"We are telling a story, I think, of resilience, of hope, of solidarity, of working as a team, of sharing experiences that we thought maybe were not shareable."

In the past four years, the National Theater of Greece has run various programs with the aim of healing trauma through art, Vienopoulou says.

The theater invited Aggeliki Toubanaki to organize and coordinate the new program. Holding a doctoral degree in molecular biology, Toubanaki is a vocalist, researcher, performer, producer, vocal educator and member of an interdisciplinary team planning the rehabilitation of patients with voice disorders.

Toubanaki uses the human voice as a musical instrument. During the current program, she helps her students to use voice and the mechanism of breathing to heal their wounds, both physical and psychological.

"All patients need to communicate their experiences, all those strong feelings that they have from their time in hospital. The purpose of this laboratory program is to connect voice, breath and body," she says.

In collaboration with post-COVID-19 clinics and specialists who are joining as guests, teaching techniques to exercise muscles and open lungs, Toubanaki guides participants toward recovery. Each case is treated as unique, and the six weekly group sessions are adjusted to each participant's needs.

The first workshop left the participants in tears, pledging to stay connected and continue to sing.

"In the second program that begins now, I would love to use traditional Chinese music," Toubanaki says.

The melodies from across the globe have demonstrably helped Sochos find his voice, inner peace and smile. Relying on his strong professional background, he found it relatively easy to get his breathing back.

"These songs, the music, the journey of the mind gave me strength and support," he says.

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