Sights and sounds in hospital foyers prove music therapy to the ears for Melbourne’s outpatients.

Entrance foyers at public hospitals are busy places. Not surprisingly most people walking through them are preoccupied and absorbed in their own thoughts. Some sight or sound out of the ordinary though can catch the attention of a few, make them pause, open up a wealth of possibilities for moving, even momentarily, out of the sphere of their immediate concerns.

It was like that between 10am and 2pm from May 5-9, 2014, when over 600 students from 10 Victorian schools played 52 hours of music at the Fifth Annual Schools’ Live Music Festival at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Their audiences were made up of outpatients coming to and from appointments, visitors, inpatients – either ambulant or in wheelchairs and often accompanied by family members or staff – along with volunteers, supporters and students waiting their turn to perform. Some people sat in chairs placed temporarily in the atrium section of the foyer. Others stood and watched from the side, smiling, nodding and applauding.

Anecdotal evidence points to the benefits of these festivals. For example, in a previous year an outpatient, who had received bad news from a doctor and was feeling low, had her spirits lifted when she heard some students singing. A man, whose wife had suffered a brain injury and was not responding to any stimuli, wheeled her into the foyer and saw her smile as she listened to a schools’ string group.

The Victorian Minister for the Arts, Heidi Victoria, launched the 2014 festival and spoke of its unique role as an avenue for school music groups to bring live music to a wide range of people who are part of the hospital environment. She thanked the patrons, Mrs Barbara Haynes OAM and Miss Betty Amsden OAM, for their generous support of this event and other programs associated with music therapy.

The annual festivals are the initiative of Emma O’Brien, Music Therapy Manager and Senior Clinician at the RMH.  Emma founded the music therapy program there in June 1997. It has since developed and is now recognised world-wide for its song-writing method with  patients, many of whom are undertaking bone marrow transplants and spend weeks in isolation wards. By introducing school music groups into the hospital environment, she not only gives students the opportunity to perform in public, but also broaden their awareness of music as therapy.

An aspect of the schools’ involvement includes students taking part in workshops conducted by Emma and fellow music therapist Stephen Skov, and a tour of the new music studio. Viewers of an ABC TV Compass program, scheduled for later this year, will also have the opportunity to see how patients’ original songs are recorded in the studio as well as the process of their composition. This will be the second of two programs about a variety of ways of bringing music therapy to patients. The first was broadcast on Sunday 18 May and featured the work of a music practitioner in Aged Care facilities.

Dr Gareth Goodier, Chief Executive of Melbourne Health, welcomed everyone on the first morning of this year’s festival. He spoke of the commitment of the staff and volunteers in making it possible and introduced the first item on the program – Man in the Mirror, performed by Elwood Secondary College VCE Students’ Band.  The work seemed an apt choice to me for young musicians in their final school year, with its theme of the self-awareness needed by those who aspire to make the world a better place.

Elwood Secondary was taking part in the festival for the first time, but some schools have been involved since its inception. The second school performing that day, the Bellarine Campus of Christian College, Geelong, were returning for the third time. Their opening choral works included Just another ordinary miracle today.  Between the performances I spoke to some of the students and teachers. All expressed their enthusiasm at being involved. Some students spoke of their own music groups which they have formed in addition to taking part in music in class room settings. The music that day covered a range of genres from Beethoven to Sheeran and lots in between.

While it’s perhaps drawing a long bow to compare the involvement of 600 Victorian students with the estimated 200 million children in Guangdong Province in China currently learning the piano (referred to in the editorial of the June issue of Limelight) nevertheless I will. Not that I want to explore the statistics, but rather highlight the commitment and enthusiasm that the students at the festival demonstrated in making music together. These young people will be the performers and the audiences of the future. They are proof of the importance of  school music education in Australia, and the current moves to expand it, making it available to all students from primary to secondary school level. Worth mentioning as an aside, was the popular return later in the week of Kew High School’s Chinese Music Ensemble with students playing traditional Chinese instruments.

Banners with the message "Live Music is Good for You" decorated the area, and music therapists and volunteers wore T-shirts with the same logo. Along a wall in the foyer there were large, blank music sheets and a written request to "please leave us a note on what music means to you". Students, patients and visitors were provided with cut-out musical notes and many wrote thoughts about music on these and attached them to the sheets. The music therapy team undertook to play the compositions that evolved over the week. (Some of the musical notes are included at the end of this article).

Illness is a great leveller and does not discriminate on the basis of age, gender or race. That, and its randomness and unpredictability struck me when I was part of the audience on day one of this year’s festival. I noticed also there was something joyous about the whole occasion and a remarkable, even though fleeting, bonding between the people there.  For a brief time it seemed a possibility that everyone understood something of great importance was happening – perhaps about music, or perhaps about caring. Even those who continued on their way, for one reason or another, couldn’t help but realize something ‘different’ was in the air, something more than the usual routine. The sense of being together at a celebration was helped by volunteers passing around plates of sandwiches and cakes from the hospital catering service. It was a bit like a party!

Between performances in the entrance foyer, small groups of students went with their teachers and the music therapists to perform in the foyer on the first floor before moving into workshops where they were shown videos of songs written by patients and the processes involved in their composition.  One was Tim’s Song (above) which Tim wrote as a gift for his fiancée. Another was Young Teezy’s rap song (below – popular with the younger school students) featuring Young Teezy, his family and friends.

A number of ensembles featured vocal and instrumental works on the first day. I particularly enjoyed hearing an adaptation of Sweet Escape by students from Elwood and a Scottish folk song, Marie’s Wedding, performed by the Ceilidh Band from Bellarine. Give me love was a popular choice of Elwood Secondary and Pasta, sung to the music of Come back to Sorrento and O sole mio, by the Bellarine choir amused the audience. (Teachers from Bellarine told me later that rehearsals are often interrupted by peals of laughter by the student during this latter work.)

The closing instrumental work on day one, As tears fall on dawn’s new light, a lyric piece written especially for young players and performed by the Bellarine Campus’ brass ensemble, seemed a poignant choice. Not that anyone there was crying, on the contrary this was an occasion when tears that may have been shed by patients and their families in the past were transcended. The Fifth Annual Schools’ Music Festival at the RMH is a good-news-story, a story of people who either already understand, or are just beginning to understand, that music helps to reach a place of transcendence.

Perhaps the best way to understand something of what music means to the individuals at the festival would be to read the following small selection from the 266 ‘musical notes’ written that week.

  • Music brings me joy in the toughest times. I LOVE MUSIC
  • Nothing brings back memories like music
  • Anyone can do music you just have to practice
  • t’s a language that everyone understands.  GO MUSIC
  • 2 years ago RMH saved our nephew and while visiting I heard choirs singing.  It was beautiful. Today my own son played here with his school. Joyful. Well done to all and thank you.
  • Lovely choir today, beautiful voices. Thank you
  • I love music more than chocolate
  • I love trumpet!
  • I love music and cello

Maureen O’Brien did research and writing for the Penguin publication, Chronicle of Australia. She has recently had a number of articles published, including one in Eureka Street Magazine about the Deborah Cheetham concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre to open the 2014 Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival.

Disclosure: the author of this article is the mother of the Emma O’Brien referred to in the text. Images Courtesy of Music Therapy Royal Melbourne Hospital