Developing practice of a musician in healthcare

Amy Bowles, founding member of the Community Music Co-operative talks about her current personal development work.

In July 2019 I was accepted to take part in a Learning and Participation Fellowship at Trinity Laban in London. Fellows have six months to study, observe, try new things and push their own development all under the watchful eye of a supporting mentor experienced in their area of work. I am focusing on my work as a musician in healthcare; looking at developing my skill set for working with people with dementia, families in neonatal settings and developing my instrumental and improvisational skills to explore the more playful side of my music making.

Part of the Fellowship encourages you to seek out other practitioners whom you wish to observe and in the last week I’ve seen Margit van der Zwan and Holly Marland in action. Firstly I went to watch the energetic and inventive musician Margit van der Zwan deliver a storybook hour long workshop delivered with her and a story teller named Karl Harris to a group of ten children aged between three and four years old at a small school in a remote high peak village as week two of a ten week project organised by High Peak Community Arts.

Karl read the ‘My Granny went to market: a round the world counting rhyme book’ and afterwards Margit took over and had the children’s attention immediately with her fun, playful and warm nature and she sang participatory songs about many things relevant to the destinations in the book. While this is not in a healthcare setting I chose to observe Margit as I’m aiming to develop the more playful side of my practise and watching a musician working with early years seemed like an obvious place to start. During the workshop the children sang songs, played instruments and devised stories within music carefully woven together by Margit. She presented activity songs, games and created the ‘noisey box’ encouraging every child to find their own voice within play.

There was no wall between Margit (musician) and the Children (audience) she made eye contact with each of them and carefully ensured that the children at the back were heard and involved. Indeed, by the end of the session the children were practically sitting on her lap by getting as close as they could to Margit (the centre of the fun!). Margit’s games were clear and fun and had simple achievable goals that the children were able to latch onto and engage with immediately. After the session, Margit and I talked about the lack of music and especially singing in schools and many of Margit’s games empowered the children to use their voices and in many cases to even begin to find them. In my own practice I have reflected on the reluctance of new mothers in Neonatal ICU to sing to their babies for fear of a poor quality of their voice, and in the session today there were many moments where the children didn’t think before joining in, the game was too much fun and too easy so they couldn’t help themselves. Is it possible for me to achieve this in ICU or neonatal ICU?

Amy doing a ‘Music In Hospitals’ concert

In my second observation I was at MRI hospital CICU and ICU wards observing Holly Marland playing kora and singing on the wards. Having been mentored by Holly for my Music and Hospitals in Care residency on their ICU-Hear programme, this was a great opportunity to see Holly in action and think about the conversations we’ve had and how points we’ve discussed are actualised on the wards. Holly is a very physical musician, every part of her body moves and expresses the music she is playing. From the very first notes of the Kora, Holly’s warm and open face looks towards the patients and she is making her invitation to interact and to share very clear. People talk to her as she plays and she answers them with a big grin and this brings about a conversation or a joke shared and then its back to the music.

As she begins, the whole ward pauses in its busyness and noise and everyone takes a moment to listen and to slow down. Nurses walk and talk softer and slower and people turn with broad smiles on their faces to see where this different and soothing sound is coming from . The two hours absolutely fly by and I feel comforted in my own practise by seeing some of the situations that occur and how Holly responds. I also feel a huge sense of camaraderie watching another musician do what I do and feel very proud to be part of this rewarding and vital work.

Final thoughts
After both observations I am reminded of the efficacy of simple music played skilfully with variations in texture, dynamics, tempo and structures varying between vocal leading or accompaniment. This style of playing and use of improvised variety maintains the musical interest and ensures the listener is listening to this responsive music making and is not bored into indifference by repetition. Moments of silence are effective in providing a break between music which can have the effect of increasing or decreasing arousal levels and breaks or pauses in a well known song are a great way to gauge levels of audience interaction.

I am also acutely aware importance of the voice leading the music to engage people and an instrument is there to support. As a self accompanying guitarist new to singing in public, finding the balance between performing solo guitar works and providing background music and engaging people in participatory sing-a-longs is always at the front of my mind. Furthermore, as a practitioner aiming to deliver a participatory experience, my physical embodiment of the music and facial expressions is a clear invitation to join in. If I’m having fun, they’ll want to join in and have fun!

This is a great first week for the Fellowship observations and I have made time to reflect and experiment with how these main points can develop my own work.

More to follow, exciting times!

Many thanks to Margit van der Zwan, Holly Marland and Karl Harris at High Peak Community Arts for the observations and Trinity Laban for this wonderful opportunity.