This article originally appeared in the South London Press on 17/10/16.
Lambeth and Southwark Mind have teamed up with local news teams South London Press and London Weekly News to launch the Change Is Possible mental health campaign. In the latest of a series of interviews with Londoners whose lives have been affected by mental health problems, reporter Jack Dixon meets composer Sergio Lopez Figueroa.
People often fall back on their favourite songs during a moment of crisis – a soothing tune or a well-written lyric can be the perfect remedy for stress, pain or sadness.
But a group of London singers believe music can be even more than that: a bona fide medical treatment for those living with long-term mental health conditions.
Composer Sergio Lopez Figueroa runs regular ‘Humming in Harmony’ workshops at the Westminster Music Library in Buckingham Palace Road – and he is beginning to expand the groups to other parts of London.
The sessions are built upon a series of vocal exercises designed to train the brain to block out extraneous sound and focus on the here and now.
A key part of the practice is group humming and participants are encouraged to build delicate vocal harmonies together.
Mr Figueroa, 50, says the simple process of making music can go a long way to healing the mind – primarily in a therapeutic sense but also by furnishing our artistic creativity.
He believes humming can be used alongside other mindfulness techniques to conquer stress, anxiety and post-traumatic conditions.
“There are lots of treatments available but there are none that bring physical and mental wellbeing together,” he said.
“I believe that through mindfulness exercises and the power of singing we can actually change our bodies physically.
“This is not like face-to-face group work where people discuss their problems. It is more about abandoning thought and giving way to feeling.”
Mr Figueroa, who lives in Greenwich, says the workshops have helped people cope with everything from basic breathing problems and recurring headaches to crippling social anxiety disorders and work-related stress.
He wants to carry out more research into ways that music can be harnessed to heal the mind, warning that mental health issues at work are costing London’s economy millions of pounds every year.
“We are talking about a huge loss to the economy but this type of activity might be very useful,” he said.
“It does not matter where you are on the scale – a top tier chief executive or an entry-level employee – everyone can benefit from this type of treatment.
“The humming gives people a sense of place and belonging, encouraging them to build meaningful relationships in a social environment.
“We see people who are often withdrawn and quiet become more expressive as they gain confidence and find their voice.
“This aim of empowering people to help themselves – rather than telling them what to do in a patronising tone – is a totally new approach to mental health.”
Mr Figueroa was born in Gran Canaria before moving to Italy and then the UK to study music.
He runs the free workshops alongside his day-to-day role as a music and drama tutor at Lewisham Southwark College, as well as commissioned work as a composer.
He first became aware of the healing power of music as he struggled with his own physical and mental health problems.
After being dealt a double diagnoses of diabetes and a congenital heart condition, he developed debilitating stress and anxiety issues.
Inspired by the music of Bach, he turned to sound as a means of coping with his difficult circumstances.
He says the vibrations caused by constant humming can be healing in themselves – one lady even claimed to have been cured of a migraine after just one session.
But the longer-term benefits are linked to relaxation, focusing the mind and switching off from the hustle and bustle of our busy lives.
“I love London but it is a stressful place to live,” he added. “People here are working under pressure and the living conditions for many are horrible.
“It is a busy and noisy city – but this practice is about embracing the idea that you can hum to the sounds around you and not fight with the environment.”
Mr Figueroa says he wants to make London the world’s first “humming city” by rolling out the workshops across the capital.
His regular sessions attract groups of between eight and 12 people but he now wants to work with people who have long-term health conditions as well as specific groups, such as breastfeeding mothers, to discover more about the potential of musical healing.
“Music is part of everyone’s life and we invite people to bring their own songs to the group, songs that have made a difference in their lives,” he added.
“Not being heard is a big part of the problem for many people who live with mental health conditions. I want to help people connect with themselves and their musical being because everyone can have this experience.”