Research Chat

Singing Ourselves to Death. Deb Shelley, Community Music

Episode Summary

The second episode of Research Chat Season 2 features Deb Shelley, who shares her research with Esther Hayford, who is a PhD Candidate in the Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work, Wilfrid Laurier University. Both researchers’ use their personal experiences to focus their research interests.

Episode Notes

The episode features:

Episode Transcription

WLU Research Chat S02E02 Esther interviews Deb


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Shawna Reibling  00:04

Welcome to the second season of Research Chat. In this season graduate students share with one another the details and challenges of their research work at Laurier.



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Shawna Reibling  00:19

In this episode, Esther Hayford will interview Deb Shelley. Esther Hayford, pronouns she/her, is a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her current research focuses on African girls and activism in high schools in Ontario. She is completing her data collection and studying with Dr. Ann Curry-Stevens and Dr. Edward Shiza at Laurier. Deb Shelley, pronouns she/her, is passionate about the value of music in our lives offering leadership to various community vocal groups over many years. Most recently, her area of focus and learning have been centred around the ageing population and those who are facing death, and how music can help the process. Her current research investigates the lives of those who choose to sing at the bedside of someone who is dying. She's exploring what motivates them and what keeps them doing it. Deb's background includes a certificate in loss, grief and bereavement studies from King's University College at the University of Western Ontario, hospice volunteer work, and her current studies in the Masters of Community Music program at Laurier has provided the impetus behind her research. She is currently analysing her data with her supervisors Dr. Amy Clements-Cortés and Dr. Lee Willingham. Welcome to both of you. I'm glad you can both be here today to discuss your dissertation research.


Esther Hayford  01:45

Hello, Deb. I'm Intrigued by your research, which focuses on bedside singing, and the ageing population. This is a totally new concept to me anyway but, I've read a bit about the bedside singing. And I wonder if you could tell me how you define bedside singing?


Debra Shelley  02:09

Sure, I'll do my best. Bedside singing is the act of being present with those who are palliative or dying. It typically involves one to five singers, who will slip quietly into the room and stand or sit at or near the bed and sing songs that will provide comfort and peace. In an ideal situation, we have some knowledge of the person who is not well, and perhaps genres of songs or particular songs that are meaningful to them, that we would be able to sing. Those who are bedside singers view it not as a performance, but as a coming forward together and offering support through their voices collectively to the individual and to the caregivers that are present with them.


Esther Hayford  03:13

Wow, this is such a noble venture I think. So what is your connection to bedside singing?


Debra Shelley  03:21

I initially learned about it while I was studying at Kings, it just happened to be a side note, in something I was reading about, bedside singing and I just... It captured my attention so, I started exploring it. There's an excellent book out by Kathy Leo called On the Breath of Song, anywhere. And so I ordered a copy of that and read it, just to get a better sense of what this looked like and how it could work itself out, and then began making connections in my own community just to inquire if there was any interest in forming a local group. And there was! In fact, it was interesting as I went around the town with posters inviting people to come to our initial gathering to explore the possibility, anyone I handed the poster to would read it and then go, "oh, wow, what a great idea." Like nobody's heard of it before, right? Which is interesting, too, because probably a lot of people could share stories about when they were sitting beside someone who was dying a family member and humming together or sharing a song or whatever. But the idea of doing it intentionally doing it was something new to people. Anyway, that's my connection to bedside singing. I'm actively involved in it.


Esther Hayford  04:39

Well, thank you for bringing this noble idea to light because, like you said, a lot of us or a lot of people have sat by the bedside of their loved ones and they have sung to them, but your research brings it to the fore and so It's great that we have this opportunity to learn more about it. Can you share key aspects of your research with us in a sentence or two?


Debra Shelley  05:11

So, one aspect of my research has been the personal impact of bedside singing on the singers themselves. I was wondering if there were any negative impacts from doing this, if any of them had experienced that. I wondered how it impacted their thinking, their psyche, their perspective on life. So those were, those are elements that I'm looking to explore.


Esther Hayford  05:39

So, you mentioned that you are interested in exploring the personal impact of bedside singing on the singers themselves and this leads me to my next question. Can you tell us more about what you set out to discover in your research?


Debra Shelley  05:58

Well, I knew how being a bedside singer was impacting me but, I didn't know to what extent other participants were being impacted. So I was curious to know what the experience had been like for them and then, what kept them what keeps them engaged in doing this. So that's those were the sort of the broad topics that I was looking to explore. When I was doing my lit review ...This is similar to what you discovered when you were doing yours. There's ample literature on specific areas. For example, with me, there's lots of information on the benefits of singing. Typically, that's lumped into the benefits of singing in a group. There's information on holistic care for palliative people, how to support caregivers, the role of music, and all those things. But I have not been able to find, you know, the research that shows what does this do to the people who are offering the music? How does it impact them?


Esther Hayford  07:09

Thank you for sharing that information. Have there been any surprises?


Debra Shelley  07:15

Surprises? My first surprise was how eager every one of the singers was to participate in the research project. Nobody said no. I did have one person say no later, because it had to be on Zoom, and she wasn't comfortable with, you know, with that she would have preferred one on one. But everyone was eager to participate and fully engaged in the interview process. Another thing I've been surprised by is the depth of personal impact on the singers, of the music that we sing, of being present for those who are dying, and with others, and then, the power of shared intent. Those are the things that are just coming, that I'm starting to see now. That those are the things that are shaping, why these people do what they do. The power, the music we're singing for others, is impacting the singers. Right? The peace and comfort they're offering is being reflected back into their own lives. So I'm getting comments like "I go home feeling at peace", or, you know, "I sense the loving kindness of the group", those type of comments are coming out.


Esther Hayford  08:34

Well, yes, music is indeed powerful, and even more powerful when we're using it for the benefit of other people. So can you share your research process?


Debra Shelley  08:47

I've always been an avid learner, I would say, but I'm a newbie to official research. So I took the class under Dr. Amy Clements-Cortés a year ago on basic research methods. I did it was one of my first semester topics because I really didn't think I'd ever want to get into research, but I knew I had to jump through this hoop to get my master's. Dr. Amy proved to be a very mentoring professor and helpful and by the end of the class, I realised, well, here's an area that I'm curious about and this could translate into a research project. So, drafted an interview, and went through the hoops of getting approval from the Laurier ethics board, created my did my, you know, started doing my research and preparing the lit review, that type of thing. Then I actually got to do the interviews, which were fun. They had to be on Zoom, as I mentioned. And then went got everything transcribed with the help of computer assistance. The university offers in access to NVivo, it's one of the programs online we can use, a tool. So I've been using that to help with the coding of the information. And I've also discovered recently that coloured highlighters are wonderful. So I have everything coded, right? But then now I'm taking, okay, here's one topic. So I'm actually hand writing what various responses are, and then colour coding those. And then you see these themes just pop out at you. As you know, there's 60% of the responses are a green colour, right? They're telling you the same thing 60% of the people. So that's where I'm at now, and then summarising those different, different topics. Then the goal will be I think, then to just see what overall themes develop. And I don't know whether we're going to come to conclusions, or just end up asking a lot more questions. Ideally, I'd like to finish the research by writing a novel, so that it becomes readable to anyone who's curious about bedside singing.


Esther Hayford  11:15

Well, I look forward to reading that novel. How has the COVID 19 pandemic changed your work?


Debra Shelley  11:23

One person chose not to participate because it had to be on Zoom so, that was a challenge. Other than that, by the time I got into this, most people have already gained a basic comfort level with online platforms. The pandemic has changed our actual work. For many months, we've not even been allowed into the local hospices, there are two within the county here. So, in good weather, we've sung outdoors through an open window. That alters the whole perspective and impact because we're not actually bedside. So that's been a growing learning opportunity for us as well. Most recently, we've been allowed indoors in one of the facilities and we inched closer. We were out in the hallway a couple of weeks ago, but this past week had to be back out in a common area, and just envisioning who we were singing to, that we've never met before. What struck us about that one, though, was that there was a volunteer working in the kitchen just outside where we were singing and we kept getting these comments after a song like, "that was beautiful" or one point, he said, "you sound like angels." So as I was leaving there with one of the other singers we were talking about, and I said, you know, we were not getting the personal bedside connection with someone. But I'm reminded that what we're doing impacts everybody involved, the caregivers, the volunteers, the nursing staff, it touches everybody.


Esther Hayford  13:08

Thanks for sharing that. I like that you said, I am reminded that what we are doing impacts everybody. And that's what is great about your research, or that's what's excellent about your research. It's not just for your benefit, but it impacts everybody. How do you personally hope to use your research findings in your own bedside singing practice?


Debra Shelley  13:38

That's an interesting question. I am struck by the need to be supportive and nurturing of the singers in the group, to give them time to process what they do, and to support one another. In the past, before COVID, we had a personal workshop day together, we retreated to a quiet little church in the middle of nowhere had this space to ourselves all day. We brought in one of my professors from King's and she led us in a creative workshop for the day. And it basically explored, gave people opportunity to reflect self reflect, explore their lives and share the day together. And several people during the course of the interviews commented about how meaningful that day was to them and I am passionate about doing what I can to help my singers be everything they can be and be there for the people that need them.


Esther Hayford  14:50

So you're passionate about helping supporting your singers, to do to do their best in supporting the people you sing for. I wish you all the best with that. 


Debra Shelley  15:07



Esther Hayford  15:07

I look forward to meeting you in person sometime.


Debra Shelley  15:11

Me too. It's been fun. Thank you. 


Shawna Reibling  15:15

Thank you both to Esther and Deb for sharing the research with us today. Please join us for the next series of episodes on Research Chat, when a different set of graduate students share their research challenges throughout their work at Laurier.



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Shawna Reibling  15:39

Please subscribe to research chat on your favourite podcast player to hear new episodes. Visit to read a follow up article show notes and related links. Research Chat is a partnership between the Office of Research Services, the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, and the Laurier Library. Thank you to everyone who's contributed to the creation of Research Chat. The gratitude list can be found on our webpage.



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