The power of music in hospital – a blog by Jenni Elbourne

Why Daring is Caring in Hospital Arts

August 2018. I am lying on the floor of an atrium at Guy’s Hospital; surrounded by an ensemble of singers from Filament Theatre Company. As we sing the title song of “Earth Makes No Sound” the vibration of our communal breath and the sound of our four-part a cappella harmony resonates through the floor and into my whole body, while I gaze upwards through a high glass ceiling beyond which the Shard rises imposingly skyward. It is a magical moment that sticks with me and ranks highly among my theatrical highlights of the year.

Little do I know that 14 months later I will be looking down on the very same floor from the fourth storey walkway leading to Guy’s Haematology department, which will become my second home for the foreseeable future, following a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukaemia.

Having also previously worked in a Hospital Arts Team at RB & H Arts for three years, I have long been convinced of the value of bringing creative projects into healthcare spaces. The therapeutic benefits of the arts are widely recognised in modern medicine, and there are many brilliant hospital arts programmes in the UK and beyond which have a positive impact on the lives of patients and staff, often on shoestring budgets and relying on charitable funds.

I have come to appreciate this impact first hand in recent months after being thrust unsuspectingly into the role of the patient.

On a very basic level, bringing the arts into a hospital – from visual art to concerts and film screenings – serves as a welcome distraction from the stress and boredom of both inpatient life and the endless stream of clinic appointments that many outpatients face. Due to compromised immunity, the hospital is one very few places outside my own home that I am currently allowed to visit; it goes without saying that if it can also be a gallery, a music hall and a cinema (Guy’s is all of these to some degree), my quality of life will be greatly improved.

Personally, however, I long to see arts interventions that go one step further than a painting on a wall or a lunchtime recital. I want to be surprised by the unexpected and immersed in the beautiful. I want my whole experience of the hospital space to be transformed, even if just for a few moments.

Having been responsible for booking and supervising live performance work in my previous job, I understand how scary it can be to take risks. Will we disturb the patients by taking performers into the wards? Will the performance be physically in the way? How will we tell if people are enjoying it? How will we explain or introduce non-traditional work?

These considerations are important, and I didn’t always get it right (contemporary clowning has a subtlety to it that somehow seemed to exacerbate the nervous tension of the hospital environment…). But without risk-taking we miss out on the opportunity to make the biggest difference at the most difficult times in people’s lives.

Every time I walk through Guy’s I am reminded of Earth Makes No Sound, which brought the natural world into the building through song and movement, carefully adapted to fill and transform the available space. Voices soared upwards into the height of the atrium, representing the power of the elements as the performers transitioned from tectonic plates to bubbling lava and roaring wind. It was also performed at Great Ormond Street, where singers embodying waves moved down two corridors before congregating in the hospital’s nautical-themed waiting room to form a boat and sing “Tide”. The hospital spaces and everybody in them were transported to the ocean by the irresistible ebb and flow of human voice and movement, tailored so as to have the greatest possible impact in each venue.

There are many fantastically innovative hospital arts interventions happening in the U.K., from the now widespread participatory Singing for Breathing programmes which started at rb&hArts, to Breathe Arts’ use of interactive magic to improve motor skills in hemiplegic children. These projects are supported by detailed research which proves their clinical benefit beyond the ‘softer’ outcomes that might be applicable to anything which ‘merely’ breaks the monotony of hospital life.

But ‘soft’ outcomes should not be dismissed as less valuable – where would that leave those of us for whom there is no obvious physical way in which creative activity might help us get better? My leukaemia is very much in the hands of haematologists and microbiologists. But my wellbeing during this mentally gruelling and emotionally exhausting time is influenced by funders, programmers and practitioners’ willingness to be bold and daring; to recognise that all of us (not just children) can benefit from playful interactions with strangers, even in times of crisis.

A highlight of my most recent hospital stay, where my room looked out over another of Guy’s atriums, was one evening when a large group of young people (probably students from King’s College) gathered in the dimly lit space to practice building a human pyramid. The event was unexplained and certainly not intended for a public audience, but even to witness others indulging in group creativity and grown-up ‘play’ for its own sake filled me with the wonder of life again after many days cooped up in isolation. 

My care will shortly be transferred to UCLH where I will undergo a stem cell transplant and spend a further 4-6 weeks on the ward followed by 6 months of regular visits to the haematology clinic. An initial visit to the Macmillan Cancer Centre proved promising; its impressive design incorporating not only permanent artworks but ample space for jigsaw puzzles and origami workshops. As I prepare to ‘move in’ there I hope those who work so hard to enliven the hospital through the arts will continue to innovate and take risks to create unexpected and transformative experiences for all those who call it home.

Osnat visits Circolo della Terza Eta lunch club at the Italian Church
Covid-19: Some Filament films to keep you occupied!