The Healing Power of Music

Bringing Music back into Hospitals

Close up photograph of a musician playing a trumpet.

When the coronavirus pandemic started at the end of March 2020, LSO Discovery’s long-standing work in three Barts Health NHS Trust hospitals in East London, like so much of our other activity, ground to a halt.

We currently run three projects in hospitals – one for under-5s, children and young people at The Royal London Hospital and Whipps Cross Hospital, one for the parents and carers of babies on the neonatal unit at The Royal London Hospital and one for older adults with dementia at Newham University Hospital.

Through these programmes, LSO musicians and workshop leaders aim to help to improve mood and wellbeing, empower patients and create moments of serenity within an often distressing hospital environment through creative music-making.

Reaching Our Youngest Participants

Close up photograph of a musician playing a violin.

With hospitals restricting visitors while the coronavirus remains a threat, we had no choice but to move to digital resources and virtual visits, starting off in summer 2020 with some new recordings by LSO Principal Flute Gareth Davies. These were to aid NHS Clinical Lead Speech and Language Therapist Melanie Peck, and LSO Early Years Animateur Vanessa King in their work on the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at The Royal London Hospital supporting parents, carers and nurses to read the early communication cues of premature babies.

In pre-Covid times, LSO musicians would play short musical excerpts to prompt parents and carers to recognise their baby’s states of alertness, identify cues and adapt behaviours. As Melanie says,

‘It provides a medium for reflection and learning, but it’s also a special event for the parents, giving them an opportunity to express their feelings and connect with others.’

Vanessa outlines the main musical aims of the work on NICU:

  1. To show the parents/carers just how important their own voices are to their premature babies and how singing to the babies can have such strong positive health effects on both baby and parent/carer.
  2. To show the parents/carers how listening, singing and dancing to music can support all of their own emotions whatever they be, during this very challenging time where often the parents/carers can forget about their own welfare and needs.

We hope that by using Gareth’s new video recordings, Mel will be able to re-establish the same atmosphere on the unit while Vanessa and LSO musicians are not able to be there in person and Mel leads sessions alone on the ground, allowing parents, carers and nurses to express their emotions and ultimately communicate better with their babies through music.

Still of LSO musician Gareth Davies playing the flute in a recording from his home.

LSO Principal Flute Gareth Davies recording videos from his home.

LSO Principal Flute Gareth Davies recording videos from his home.

Back to School

Close up photograph of a musician playing a trombone.
Photograph of an empty classroom at the Royal London Hospital.

Meanwhile, plans were afoot to return to the older children and young people’s wards and bedsides at The Royal London Hospital, even if virtually, to reach those up to the age of 16.

Andrew Wieland, Hospital Teacher at Barts and The London Children's Hospital School (London East Alternative Provision) based on Ward 7D at The Royal London Hospital, explains the situation the school was faced with back in spring 2020:

‘The hospital school closed on March 20th just before lockdown. In the weeks running up to the lockdown some staff had to isolate and we had to see all students individually. The school opened again early in June.

'Initially student numbers were greatly reduced as non-essential hospital admissions were cancelled, and as a result staff worked on a rota basis to minimise unnecessary journeys. The number of students gradually increased as we approached the summer holiday. When we returned in September the classrooms were still closed but all staff were on site, so all student contact was one to one, with teaching taking place at the bedside.

'I am pleased to report the sessions have surpassed my expectations.

'All students visited by Mark and his colleagues have clearly enjoyed the experience. Youngsters have taken to online sessions brilliantly and clearly feel they have been visited in person by the musicians. The quality of sound and the visuals has been really good and the musicians have shown their experience of working online. They allow students time to respond and reflect, something I do not always see in other online meetings I attend where talking over each other occurs.

'Parents have also been very involved in the sessions which has been a real plus! During the pandemic parents are encouraged not to come and go from the cubicles or bedsides, so the LSO visits have been really welcomed.

'While we have not been able to recreate the lovely group workshops of the past, the feeling of having a "special" visit from the LSO has meant a lot.’

Screenshot of a virtual visit.

Workshop leader Mark Withers, LSO Sub-Principal First Violin Clare Duckworth and Royal London Hospital Teacher Andrew Wieland preparing for a virtual visit in November 2020

Workshop leader Mark Withers, LSO Sub-Principal First Violin Clare Duckworth and Royal London Hospital Teacher Andrew Wieland preparing for a virtual visit in November 2020

Photograph of an empty classroom at the Royal London Hospital.

Mark Withers, LSO Animateur, adds ‘The virtual visits to the Royal London profit from the understanding built up from years of working together. What remains is so similar to our in-person visits.

'The hospital school team have prioritised a selection of young people for us to see and give us a short briefing before taking us on a tour of the wards. We tour on an iPad rather than in person and then play to and with, chat to and try to engage with all of the young people we meet. Where possible we look to encourage a very active participation and this is very similar to going in the room.

'For me this work is the heart and soul of my being a musician. We connect with people by the millions through films and recordings, by the thousands through concerts. Here you are playing for one child and their family. They are in charge. Their needs are the only thing that counts. And as a result their responses go deep into the music and the musician.

'So with all the restrictions around us, it is incredibly affirming to reach an audience so directly. But much more significant are the changes for children in hospitals. Visits are very restricted as are all activities. Anxiety, disorientation and boredom are all increased. So to be a stimulus in this environment is all the more important and appreciated by children and the family member that is with them.’

It’s not only the patients who benefit from these sessions; Clare Duckworth, LSO Sub-Principal First Violin, who joined a virtual visit in November 2020 during England’s second lockdown said, ‘We really felt like we were there in the space, and the children and their parents obviously enjoyed a change of routine too.

'Quite often we are told by a parent or staff member how much our visit has perked up a particular patient, but actually I always come away from these sessions feeling like I’ve benefitted from it just as much, and today especially so. To be able to share these spaces virtually during a lockdown feels an even greater privilege than usual.’

Photograph of an empty classroom at Royal London Hospital.

An empty classroom at Royal London Hospital. © Andrew Wieland

An empty classroom at Royal London Hospital. © Andrew Wieland

Seren-aiding older adults and staff at Newham University Hospital

Close up photograph of a musician playing a cello.

The SerenAid project brings music-making to patients in five Older Adult Wards at Newham University Hospital. Pre-Covid, two LSO musicians and LSO Animateur Caroline Welsh would visit patients, supported by staff from the Dementia and Delirium team. Patients are undergoing rehabilitation and treatment for a variety of conditions, infections and falls, and over 60% live with from some form of dementia.

‘The regular visits by the musicians to the ward lift the spirits of patients, staff and visitors. We staff have so few opportunities to offer our elderly patients, many suffering from delirium or dementia, a break from routine and this is truly wonderful.’
Consultant Geriatrician, Newham University Hospital [on the LSO's involvement in the hospital's summer garden party, July 2019]

While the LSO is not able to connect directly with Newham patients suffering from delirium or dementia, its dedicated dementia and delirium team headed by Eva Rowe were keen to bring a little joy to the hospital foyer in the run-up to the festive season. So it was that Caroline Welsh, who leads the sessions, was joined by LSO Principal Second Violin Julián Gil Rodríguez and LSO Double Bass Jani Pensola on 10 December 2020 to create a series of musical messages or 'hugs' for members of staff, volunteers and people visiting patients, and hear something of their experiences at Newham.

At the moment it is difficult to make close contact with all of those we most want to reach out to so people were offered the chance to send a special message to someone to brighten their day, whether that be offering a friend or colleague some support or encouragement, to uplift them, send condolences or a moment of quiet beauty, or just bring a smile to someone's face to let them know they’re being thought about.

Caroline says, ‘Our visits to the wards for older patients at Newham are always varied, influenced as they are by all those we meet. And there have been many extraordinary shared encounters that have meant a great deal to us as well as to the patients or medical staff. The porters who danced their way through the bays because the music made them feel uplifted; or the family members, grateful for the sense of holding that beautiful music can create, where they can take a moment of space during difficult times.

'Some patients conduct the musicians, some sing, some share with us their stories, the things and people that they love.

'We offer small moments of deep connection, where those in duress are seen and acknowledged for who they are, no matter what their current circumstances may be.

'For me, this work offers an opportunity for connection, the chance to share something beautiful that is beyond words and that reaches into the heart of our shared humanity, however distant we may seem to be at first. This rich feeling of interconnectedness includes the Dementia and Delirium Team that we work closely with, and ripples out through all the medical staff we encounter.

'At this time especially we are anxious to do whatever we can to support the wellbeing of patients and staff by providing musical encounters in inventive ways, and by being as flexible as we can around all the current constraints so that we can begin engaging in new ways as soon as possible.’

Andrew Kelso, Medical Director at Newham says, ‘Music is known to be a powerful therapeutic agent. During a major international pandemic, when the world is turned upside down, it is more important than ever to treat our patients holistically, using every modality. The LSO fill a vital gap in our therapeutic armamentarium.

By coming into the hospital and playing live music, they have provided therapeutic relief and comfort for our patients, a diversion away from the dull (and occasionally painful) routine of a hospital admission.

They have brought groups of patients and staff together and sparked both conversations and wordless camaraderie. Life and health are richer for having music in them – long live the LSO!’

LSO Local

25 to 27 September 2020

Close up photograph of a musician playing a double bass.

Over the weekend of 25 to 27 September 2020, LSO musicians gave performances across London (and beyond) as part of our very first LSO Local weekend. 32 LSO Members took part in over 20 performances in just three days, including a quartet recital at Newham Hospital instigated by LSO Viola Robert Turner. Together with LSO Violin Paul Robson they even enlisted the musical talents of a few hospital staff members too!

Robert recalls, ‘When LSO Local was first proposed my thoughts immediately went to trying to do something at Newham Hospital. I had visited on a few occasions, with LSO colleagues and the wonderful animateur Caroline Welsh, playing in workshops on wards and once at a memorable summer garden party.

'The nurses at the dementia unit were infectiously enthusiastic about bringing music into the hospital for patients and staff and I could see how deeply some were affected.

Going back in September was obviously very different but having live music (in this case a string quartet) in that environment again felt important. It was also a real pleasure to play with Andrew Kelso, a member of the senior hospital staff, on cello!’

Thank you to Robert, and all the LSO musicians, animateurs and of course hospital staff who have made all of this work possible for patients over the last few months in such different and ever-changing circumstances. We look forward to returning in-person very soon.

The Children's Hospitals Programme is generously supported by BBC Children in Need, Gapper Charitable Trust and LSO Friends. The Older Adults 'SerenAid' Hospital Programme is generously supported by The Lambert Charitable Trust.

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