Seeing from multiple angles

Recently I visited Derby Children’s Hospital for some practical music-making as part of the Opus Music in Healthcare course.

Within the Children’s areas there is plenty of visually very witty design to make the environment as fun and stress-free as a hospital can be. For example, the big lifts are decorated floor to ceiling. Go into the lift, and you’re surrounded by sea and sand, and on the floor, pebbles and a pair of flip-flops. It’s just a flat photograph on the floor, but quite unnerving to walk on because it looks so realistic. Returning later in the other lift, you’re surrounded by a football crowd in a stadium, and the floor is a grass pitch with white lines and a football. A wonderful and tangible manifestation of the care and thought they put into making this a welcoming place for children.

Even so, it was a bit unnerving being in a group bringing music into this environment. Between us we had a collection of various wind instruments and my harp, which suddenly seemed huge in a world of children. How would we be received?

I’d already discovered (in the training session) that it’s a powerful thing to offer music to one other person. It’s very different from playing in a recital or pub session because you don’t get – or expect – a response. And just to bring in an instrument to a healthcare setting is a significant event, even though it’s also a humanising and potentially beneficial one. During our musical visits to the wards I was particularly struck by the importance of looking around you and noticing what’s going on – both before, during and after playing. To get everyone used to the sound it’s nice to play a few notes; this gives you both a clue as to what the instrument can do, and makes it easy for someone to decide whether they want to listen or not. Sometimes the music was met with what appeared to be indifference, but often it prompted wonderful, engaging exchanges between the musician and the patients – one girl laughing in delight as she filled in the words of a song that the musician kept “forgetting”. The boy next to her was nodding his head vigorously in time to the beat, and he played along with a little percussion instrument.

We played in many areas, including Children’s A&E (in this case, the waiting area). A&E is different from other areas because people tend not to have planned to be there and can be worried about many things – not just medical related, but the consequences of suddenly having to be somewhere at short notice. Music can have a potentially beneficial effect for both children and parents / carers if carefully and sensitively offered.

Playing in this situation demands that your antennae and your senses are on full alert, and one such incident also showed me the importance of sharing our observations. A little boy put his hands over his ears at one point during our playing, and afterwards one of my fellow musicians mentioned this as “not wanting to hear the music”. I saw this too, but also noticed that he’d put his hands over his ears when a doctor came into reception to call out a name – so it’s equally possible that he didn’t want the music to be interrupted by this loud voice cutting across the room. A third colleague was by the entrance and as the doctor walked away after calling out the name, the doctor apparently said “I’ll never get him to come away now” – in other words, it was this little boy who was being called, and he wanted to stay. While we can’t assume it was a positive reaction to the music rather than a wish not to go for treatment, it seemed to me he was enjoying listening, at least as a distraction. On leaving, he apparently pointed at one of the instruments, possibly my harp, and said, “I want one of those”.

Back to my question about how the music is received: really, it’s a different way of playing. Normally you are acutely conscious of how you are being received, but in a healthcare setting you have to have no expectations of getting anything back, and you have to be comfortable with that; you offer the music and are willing to work with what emerges, moment-to-moment. Even if you get a reaction, such as the boy in A&E, often the “truth” is really impossible to know. We can’t always ask what the impact of the music is, and the patients can’t always give us an answer in any case, at least not in words. But having collectively shared our views, we got to piece together a possible version of how the music was being received, and whether or not that little boy takes up an instrument, at the very least, we provided a taste of live music and a nice diversion from what must have been a stressful day for him and his parents.

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