My experience as a Resident Musician at GOSH

Heather singing to patient

What's it like to be a musician-in-residence in a hospital setting like GOSH? Heather McClelland reflects on her experience and recounts some of the special moments she has shared with patients and families that demonstrate the power of music. 

A patient-lead approach 

As soon as I started working at GOSH it was very clear why it holds its world class reputation. It just has something special about it. You can feel it as soon as you walk into the reception and see the colours on the walls or the moving fishes on the floor; it feels vibrant and child-centred, something which is reflected in its care and ethos. The arts are valued as an integral part of the practice and the hospital is recognised by the arts team as a 'cultural space- a community of potential audiences', which in my experience of arts in health make it very distinctive in its approach. I have now been a musician working in this space for 2 and a-half years and as I come to the end of my residency I wanted to reflect on this journey.

Before I talk about the specifics I'll explain the logistics. There are currently 8 resident artists of different disciplines and each one does half a day per week at GOSH. Each week I go to the arts store, collect my trolley of instruments and make a rough plan in my head with the knowledge it is likely to change. When I get to a ward I will tend to find a nurse or Play Worker and ask if there is anyone who might like some music. Sometimes I am given a very specific list and sometimes they say I can ask everyone. This means I am often knocking on doors with no knowledge of who may be in the room. We work with 0-18 year olds, so it could be a baby, toddler or young person. As a result I have developed a vast toolkit and repertoire of songs so that I have something to offer up to anyone I see. They then have the choice to say no, but at least the offer is there.

It's an interesting role as you simultaneously have lots of possible plans with no plan at all and a totally fluid and responsive patient-led approach. I also never take it for granted that I am entering someone’s space. I am essentially going into someone’s bedroom and although it is my job to make this interaction feel comfortable, ultimately it is an unusual situation, so I always try to work in a way that enables them to feel confident with me. It is so important how I enter the space and this can make all the difference as to whether or not a person wants to have a session or not.

Special moments on the wards

The unique thing about working at GOSH is that every ward is totally different and requires a different approach. For example Woodpecker ward is pre-surgery, so the space is often emotionally charged as anxiety about the procedure can very much be present for both the parents and the young person. A distraction can be very much welcomed. I've had some really special interactions there - facilitating music sessions where all the family are playing instruments or singing together, or its been just me singing songs with a toddler while their parents speak to the anaesthetist. 

Leopard is a respiratory ward which means they often have a lot of cystic fibrosis patients who come every few months for a two-week course of treatment. Here, I can really start to build a relationship with the young people and can give them activities that they can continue practicing between admissions. If they like singing I will often teach them singing for breathing exercises that I have developed specifically for young people with cystic fibrosis and if they are interested in playing ukulele, I carry a spare to teach with. 

On Elephant, Giraffe and Lion, the oncology wards, young people often have long admissions, so if I find someone for whom the music is making a difference, I will often return to see them during their stay. I've had very varied sessions with some young people depending on where they are with their treatment. Treatment can often have a strong impact on energy levels and mood, so it's always important for me to remember that one day someone may be enthusiastic and the next they may be less so.

Sky is orthopaedics so many of the patients there will have limited mobility. I have found that technology can be a brilliant resource on this ward. I often use an iPad app called ‘Thumbjam’ where people can play along with lots of instrumental sounds with minimal touch. Sometimes people want to just listen, but I often find that people like being invited to be involved and enjoy the opportunity to improvise. I tend to play lullabies or jazz songs with an interesting chord structure that give a great foundation for people to play over and they often sound wonderful. I love using this app as it gives people a voice to express themselves with music and takes away a barrier to explore musicality, something which I find integral to my approach.

What is so interesting about my work here is though I draw from my own practice, it’s not about me. I see the role as providing a space for young people and their families to experience and explore music and create meaningful moments."

One very special interaction I had on Sky ward was in a bay with two children. As soon as I entered the space and offered B (aged 9) some music she was very enthusiastic and beamed as she took the glockenspiel to play. D (11), another patient in the bay, was non-verbal with very limited movement. I gave her and her mum the iPad and mum guided her fingers so we could all play together. We sang songs and everybody in the bay joined in, including the parents and staff. Neither of the families had known each other previously and this felt like an interaction that completely changed the feeling of the bay and created a sense of community in the space. B kept saying that she loved D and loved doing music with her. After the session D's mum told me that many other children didn't know how to react to D and was touched by how B was responding to her within the session.

That is one example of a session, but I frequently have these special moments with people. Moments where a parent cuddles their baby as I sing to them, a family participates in music-making for the first time, a young person explores and expresses their feelings through song writing or someone realises they can and love to sing. Music is a powerful tool and I find that this is amplified in a hospital environment where people are often dealing with very challenging situations; music is human and levelling.

As I look back at my time at GOSH I can see how every part of me as an artist and practitioner was valuable in these interactions. This has been an amazing experience and I know I have grown so much as a performer through being here. My ability talk to people when performing, to improvise, and my overall musicianship have all improved. It's also been a privilege to be amongst the other resident artists - we have often been encouraged to collaborate and it's amazing to be working in a role where we are very much valued as artists in our own right by the GOSH Arts team. However what is so interesting about my work here is though I draw from my own practice, it’s not about me. I see the role as providing a space for young people and their families to experience and explore music and create meaningful moments.

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