Monthly Archives: January 2021

Therapy or Not Therapy?

I help people to make music. That’s my job. I teach and encourage, facilitate and listen, while people find the music inside themselves and discover how to express it.  

Sometimes I work with individuals, and sometimes I work with groups. Some of the people I work with have a label of learning disability or autism and some of them don’t.  When I describe what I do with Under the Stars, I often hear “Oh, so it’s music therapy then?” 

Well, no, it’s not.

Music therapy is a certificated profession and I do not have the training or the qualifications. Therapists work mostly one to one, very much led by the person they are working with, and they don’t work towards “products” like performances or recordings. Music therapy is brilliant, but it’s not what I do.

Music is good for you.  Music lifts your spirit, gets you moving physically and breathing a bit harder, using your brain, concentrating so that you can’t worry about whatever you’re anxious about, and helps you express things when words won’t do. Playing and singing with other people gives you a sense of connection that is hard to beat and a joy that helps you find your smile.  This applies to everyone, whether they have a label or not.  

When we have a band session with the musicians at Under the Stars, everyone is developing musical skills.  One person might learn guitar chords or how to play a drum pattern, another will be learning the words to a song or writing a new one. It’s work, and it’s fun.  Some people have a very good sense of rhythm and some struggle.  Some find it easier to sing in tune than others, as in any group. If we have a group with support workers joining in, they often find they are less able than some of the learners. 

In my community choirs, everyone is welcome.  I happen to know that, over the years, some singers have had bereavements, mental health episodes, relationship issues and life-changing illnesses.  I only know this if they have chosen to tell me – and they tell me because choir has helped them through.  A person might choose to join a choir to improve their memory, or start piano lessons to give their week more structure, keeping depression at bay. Music can help with all these things, and it is just a good thing in its own right.

What I offer is an opportunity to learn music, to play or sing something to a standard that makes you happy. Along the way there may be lots of fringe benefits: self-esteem, learning to take turns, or better fine motor skills.

Just because I’m working with someone with a label of learning disability or autism, doesn’t mean that it’s “therapeutic”. In the same way, just because I’m teaching someone who hasn’t got a label, does not mean that it’s not.

Health, hope and happiness

This is my wish for us all in 2021.

In March last year, I would not have believed that we would still be unable to have our normal choir rehearsals after ten months. I remember hearing at the beginning of lockdown about an organisation putting their sessions on hold for 12 weeks and thought it was excessive. A way of living that seemed unimaginable has become the norm. We are fearful of touching people, which is sad. I watch TV and almost wince at the casual handshakes and hugs we used to take for granted.

I am grateful for many things, not least that I live with someone I really like, and our house is big enough for us to work in separate rooms. Our youngest child was here from March to July, struggling with trying to do drama school online and missing her friends but we didn’t have to cope with young children at home. (From July to September her boyfriend joined our bubble and we were a happy foursome.)

We have a fantastic park on our doorstep and woods nearby, so we can walk or run from the door and see greenery and hear birds. The elderly relations we cannot visit are healthy and well cared for.

When I heard people saying, a few weeks ago, “I can’t wait for 2020 to be over”, I felt uneasy. It was as though the troubles of the past months were the calendar’s fault. Once the number of the year changed, everything would get better. We were hanging our hopes on “next year” being the time when we could return to a more familiar way of life. But of course it doesn’t work like that. January 2021 is just the week after December 2020, and the hoped-for changes, like the vaccine, will take time to happen.

The only way to live through 2021 is one day at a time. We need to look after our own health, eating right and sleeping plenty, spending some time outside every day. It’s important to try and connect with other people, however we can, and not get stuck in our own heads. Try to be optimistic. It’s very difficult not having the usual milestones of holidays and celebrations to look forward to, but Spring will come and babies will be born and puppies will be adorably naughty.

Music can help us weather the storms. Whether you listen to Debussy or Daft Punk, music fills your head. Let your body feel the music and move about. Don’t be shy about singing along. Much of the music we love brings memories of other times in our lives, and the people we knew then, which is another dimension of enjoyment.

Why not try learning to sing a song you love? It’s easy to find lyrics for almost anything on the internet. (I have to warn you that you almost NEVER know the song as well as you thought you did!) Or you could revisit songs you’ve enjoyed singing in choir.

What about writing your own song? If you’re not confident about making up a new tune, use a tune you already know.

Whatever 2021 has in store, I wish you peace and harmony.

Singing Near Each Other, at last

Christmas carols in Meersbrook Park, 12th December 2020

Christmas during Covid

I was so grateful that we managed to sing near each other on this Saturday afternoon before Christmas. Following the rules for outdoor performance, each household stayed 2m apart. We looked over the wonderful vista of Sheffield to the north as the sun disappeared, and sang ten Christmas songs together.

The sound was not as rich as when we stand shoulder to shoulder, but it was unified and musical. We ended up with quite an audience – I could hardly believe how many people were there when I turned round. I think it was a mixture of people who had come knowing we were performing, and people who had stumbled across the event and just stayed. They certainly seemed very appreciative and it felt like we had shared something worthwhile.

We started off in unison, just to see how it felt, and gradually people started adding a little harmony here and there. By the end there was a real appetite to recapture the joy of singing in four parts, so we plunged into a rendition of our favourite Christmas song, Hail Smiling Morn. Miraculously, it came back to life in a way that astonished me. People moved to stand near others who sing the same part and, with no rehearsal for approximately 360 days, the song appeared. It is amazing, and moving, that songs we have learnt well, live in us in a physical way – your brain may not be sure it remembers, but when you start to sing, the words and music fall into your mouth. We’ve all heard and seen examples of people suffering from dementia, sometimes having lost the power of speech, recapturing songs they learnt long ago.

Here’s another picture featuring two of my grandchildren.