Reflections on practice: Responses to music in hospitals

nick cutts 1 300We get a wide range of reactions to our music-making in children’s hospitals – from the babies, children and young people themselves, and from their families and staff.

Staff greet us with delight as colleagues, often give us a ‘heads-up’ about their ward, and go about their work with the confidence that we will contribute positively to the environment and the people within it.

Patients and their families, especially those who have not previously experienced music-making in the hospital, often greet us with a look of surprise and amazement that music is ‘allowed’ in such an environment.  Many instantly express delight that music can now be part of their hospital experience, some exhibit initial slight concern or embarrassment about what might be expected of them in return.

The interaction between professional musician and professional healthcare staff, both working as part of the same team, along with some gentle confidence on the part of the musician of their place and potential value in the setting usually sets everyone at ease, and allows the music to flow from everyone.

There are some patients, however, for whom there are no inhibitions, potential embarrassments or pre-conceived perceptions of what a musical offering could be.  We met one such patient recently in an Accident and Emergency department.  Sitting on his Mum’s knee, this young baby engaged the moment we began to play.  Showing no signs of embarrassment, he looked straight into my eyes and connected instantly.  He had been crying before we entered the space, but was now transfixed by the music and the human connection, and began gently wriggling and vocalising along to the music, taking time out occasionally to grin at his Mum and at us until eventually gleefully playing a shaker along with us.  The sense of relief and joy between baby and his Mum was palpable.

At the same time, an older boy was sat with family in the next bed.   His initial reaction, and to some extent that of his family, was one of giggling, possibly through embarrassment and the lack of ‘coolness’ of the whole situation.  He and his family, however, watched intently as we played for the baby and his Mum.  What I think they saw, was a musical connection made between musicians and family, one where no-one had any expectations, where everyone could be exactly who they are, and where they could all be part of a beautiful artistic exchange.

By the end, the older boy was filming us on his ‘phone, watching everything intently and joining in with songs along with his family.  His family said he had been very upset before we arrived.  We had, at least for a short while, given him some relief from this, and demonstrated the impact of strong connections made through honest music-making.  As we left, he smiled, clapped, and thanked us for visiting.  Upset was replaced by delight in the shared experience he had just been part of with his own and another family, and with the two rather ‘uncool’ but egoless musicians who had, for a short while shared some quality time through music making.

Music, especially in the hospital environment, gives everyone the chance to be themselves, to forget inhibitions and embarrassments, and to make human connections and great music which supports their own health and wellbeing.

Nick Cutts
Director, Musician & Trainer, OPUS Music CIC

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