August 13, 2006

Stressed? Try singing

By Jane Merriman

LONDON (Reuters) - Stressed bankers in London are being
offered a new way to unwind -- singing lessons.

Professionally trained singer Karin Hochapfel runs
stress-busting classes for City highfliers that use a mixture
of yoga, Alexander Technique and breathing exercises to relieve
tension -- all used by singers to warm up before they perform.

"I got the idea to construct the classes in a way so
hardworking people can use it to energise themselves and get
relaxed," she said.

Hochapfel has run classes in London's West End for the past
year, but has just started in the bustling financial district
of Canary Wharf, where she says people are noticeably uptight.

"These people are so stressed," she says. "I was trying to
distribute postcards about my classes and normally I don't have
difficulty getting in contact with people but it was so hard to
get eye contact."

Hochapfel said she sensed people's fear, which she put down
to anxiety about doing well in their jobs. "It's the
competition -- you sense that."

Thousands of suit-clad workers stream out of Canary Wharf
underground station at rush hour on weekdays, hurrying to get
to their high-rise offices where they put in long hours with
few breaks but plenty of stress.

Hochapfel says the physical and mental processes involved
in singing help alleviate tension as the whole body has to

"All your ligaments are connected to the voice, so the way
you hold even your wrists can affect how your voice sounds."


Hochapfel, who trained in Cologne and New York, starts her
class with breathing exercises. She asks people to imagine
their bodies as a tube through which air flows.

"It's an ancient way to unleash energy and relax and tone
the body and mind."

Then she gets the class to throw a ball to each other and
the person holding the ball has to sing a phrase from a song.

At one session this produced: "The hills are alive with the
sound of music," "Ave Maria," and "Sex and drugs and rock and

"It's like melody dialogue which can be very funny and
because it's funny you forget about other things."

Stress is responsible for 12.8 million lost working days a
year in Britain, translating into almost 4 billion pounds
($7.61 billion) of lost revenue, according to Gabriella
Goddard, an executive coach, who offers courses on how to deal
with stress.


Goddard, who is currently working on an anti-stress
programme at U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers, said the
symptoms of stress -- such as a faster heart-rate and increased
blood supply to the brain -- once had a more positive function.

"It was great when we had to fight bears."

But today people find it hard to de-stress and return the
body to equilibrium, she said.

"We can forget how to switch off the on switch."

Her sessions at Lehman Brothers highlight stress-relieving
strategies including exercise, as well as adopting a different
perspective on the work environment.

"I get people to be silent for five minutes and just look
out of the window. That helps to calm people down and get the
heart in equilibrium."

Employers have become more aware of stress in terms of
ill-health and also litigation. People can claim work-related
stress under UK employment legislation under health and safety
rules or as a breach of contract.

Increasing numbers of companies in the United States are
offering employees massage and yoga onsite, not only to
de-stress people but to encourage them to stay at that company
rather than move to another.

Some places have come up with less conventional ways of
getting people to unwind.

A bar in China lets customers punch staff and smash glasses
to unleash pent-up anger, while in the Philippines, residents
flock to a restaurant in Gerona where they can smash plates
against a "wall of fury."

Goddard says women are more pro-active than men in terms of
wanting to tackle stress.

"Women want to know how to juggle their lives better."

Hochapfel, who performs jazz and cabaret in London, also
finds women more receptive to her anti-stress remedies.

She says men do come to her classes. "But it's always less
men than women -- what a pity."