IN the unassuming chapel tucked away in a corner of Colchester General Hospital, something quite magical is happening.

In the room are a handful of people sitting on chairs in a circle.

Before long, they come to their feet, their hips are rotating, shoulders are being squeezed and the tongue twister “copper bottomed coffee pot” is being repeated.

It seems a world away from the busy clinical hospital but is actually incredibly relevant.

The group are preparing to sing - sing for their health.

The free classes have recently launched at the hospital after its own charity, Colchester Hospital Charities, sponsored them, meaning patients don’t have to pay.

The group is being led by music therapist Mary Anne Barclay whose background includes training with the British Lung Foundation.

Last year the charity launched a UK-wide pilot programme called Singing for Lung Health.

And it’s exactly that which has bought her here.

Mary Anne, 26, said: “The British Lung Foundation put out an ad for people leading singing courses.

“I wrote back and said I would be interested and they said they could offer 12 weeks worth of funding.

“I said I wanted to set up in Colchester because I knew there was quite a strong Breathe Easy group already which had been running since May last year.

“The British Lung Foundation offered us one day training led by someone who had done research around singing for health.”

After undergoing her training, Mary Anne, who also has a degree in music therapy, set up her first Singing for Health Group group.

It was staged at the St John’s and Highwoods Community Centre last September.

Through that she got to know Linda Leech, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease nurse specialist, who is based at Colchester General Hospital.

Linda suggested Mary Anne ran a class at the hospital and it turned out the chapel was available to house it each Thursday afternoon.

The classes are aimed primarily at people with lung disease such as COPD or asthma but they are open to anyone who suffers from breathlessness as a result of other conditions including heart failure or cancer.

No previous singing experience is needed and it is said to be an excellent way to breathe better and build stamina.

As the class gets going, I see how it is also good fun.

After a number of breathing exercises, it’s time to move on to some singing - but not necessarily as you’d expect.

Song sheets are handed out and Amazing Grace is on the line up, “choirboy” style, as Mary Anne puts it.

Her solo demonstration shows how the singers should breathe as though they are yawning through the words and using consonants to queue them to breathe.

It’s an interesting sound by the group which follows.

However, I’m impressed by the way they master the technique quickly, bearing in mind each member may not have the lung capacity to breathe freely.

A jazzed up version follows before a couple of renditions of In the Jungle, involving group members singing different parts.

More breathing exercises round off the hour-long class and I catch a word with Bob Olley, 70.

It was his second week at the class and he suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - the umbrella term which includes conditions such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Its main cause is smoking and that has contributed to Bob’s condition.

Bob said: “I was a smoker for 55 years but have now given up. At the end I only smoked a couple a week. It was 20 a day when I was at work.

“What happened is we were doing a rehabilitation course which is physical exercise and one of the nurses from here came along and said she was doing a singing thing.

“In the north of England in particular, there are a lot of diseases from industrial processes such as mining and they have found that singing has helped.

“It has been known to improve lung capacity by 30 per cent is some cases.

“If you don’t help yourself, no-one is going to do it for you.”

The grandad-of-three from Colchester was pleased he’d made the effort to attend.

“It is an achievement. I was certainly better this week than I was last week.”

So what can the group expect after attending the sessions for three months?

According to the British Lung Foundation, people living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease who joined a singing group said singing regularly reduced their feelings of being short of breath and helped them to manage their symptoms better.

They coughed less and felt their breathing was generally easier.

They also said their speaking voice got stronger.

Research also suggests singing can boost your body’s response to infection.

Mary Anne sees the benefits herself. She said: “The rewarding thing is giving them different techniques and being able to find their voice again, and meet other people who have the same conditions so they don’t feel alone.

“It is all about doing something for health that is enjoyable.”

There are also the physical health benefits.

“Their posture improves because they learn how to stand and their body language improves.

“They also learn breathing patterns and their anxiety is reduced by them breathing more deeply.”

Twelve weeks down the line will Bob, or any of the other group be breathing more easily?

That remains to be seen, but I can already see friendships forming in the group as members move on to asking after one another’s families and weekend plans before they leave.

For more information about the hospital group, which meets 1.30 to 2.30pm Thursdays, or the Highwoods group, also on Thursdays from 3pm to 4pm, email