Through playing music in hospital wards we are constantly learning to read patients reactions and developing our sensitivity as to whether a patient is happy for us to be there, wants us to be there or would rather we left. Sometimes this is easy as the patient gives a clear response to our arrival and we can feel confident as to whether we should stay and play or leave.
On Friday 1st of June I was part of an interaction in a day surgery ward that went something like this… We entered the 8 bed ward and played for the children and their families there. We were met with a variety of reactions from the patients on the ward, from interest, through indifference to excitement. We felt confident to stay and play. We played for about ten minutes and had engaged a couple of children who had interacted with us to varying degrees, but all positively.
While this was going on a child (who we later found out was just one year old) was brought back onto the ward from surgery. He was coming round from anaesthetic and was in some discomfort and distress and there was very little that mum could do to comfort him. He would not stop crying. At the end of the piece we had been playing Sarah moved over and started playing for the boy. Nick was playing behind her and I was some feet away able to view the scene from a distance but still able to provide musical accompaniment. As I watched and played and the piece progressed I couldn’t see that what we were doing was having any discernible effect on the boy or even that he had registered our presence, even though Sarah was only a couple of feet away and crouching down playing at the boys eye level.
I was starting to feel uncomfortable and that perhaps we were distressing the boy more and my reaction was to move away but Sarah continued to play so I stayed and played. After a few more seconds (that to me felt like a long while) the boy all of a sudden stopped crying and became transfixed by Sarah. He stared straight at her and became completely absorbed in the music that she was playing on her fiddle. Nick and I stayed in a supporting role continuing to play but leaving Sarah free to steer the interaction. She carried the piece on for a couple of minutes during which time the boys gaze did not leave her once. The boy seemed calmed, still and relieved of physical discomfort.
Mum made the comment “I wish we had you at home!” and both adults continued to remark at how soothed he was by the music. After a couple of minutes more the boy seemed to become aware of his physical discomfort once more and started to cry again. As he did so we started to leave but continued playing as we left the ward.
For me it was a lesson in gentle persistence. I would have left the interaction before anything had had a chance to happen. Trying to judge a patients reaction to the music you are playing in hospital can be very difficult and requires a mixture of self confidence, humility and to keep the mantra of ‘expect nothing’ at the forefront of your mind. Just remember not to ‘expect nothing’ too soon!