We are lucky to partner with some incredible artists through our Arts for All programme. With their help and expertise, we aim to transform the patient experience at our hospitals. Whilst most of our programme remains suspended, we look forward to welcoming all our artists back once it is safe to do so. We recently spoke to wellbeing voice coach, Natasha Lohan, about the benefits of song and music.
Tell us about yourself and your work with CW+. How long have you been working with us?
I am a singer who enjoys making music with people of all ages and experience. I run regular singing and movement groups for older adults as part of Trinity Laban’s Inspired not Tired programme, delivering creative intergenerational projects to museums and galleries, including the Tate Modern and The Queens House in Greenwich. I’ve also devised and run singing projects for people living with dementia for Age Exchange and the V&A. I was invited to join the Arts for All team in 2019, adapting my group singing practice for use on the older people’s wards.
What made you want to work with CW+ or within healthcare more generally?
Singing is an activity we can all access. It has many benefits for our health and wellbeing. It empowers us and bonds us to those around us. For me, these are essential elements for our wellbeing; we need to feel connected and purposeful to live full lives. My singing approach welcomes each voice as a vital part of the group, and I work with people to find that voice for themselves. Having spent many years developing my approach in working with older adults, it was an exciting opportunity to take these ideas into the ward setting. Singing here is, at its simplest, a moment of distraction and fun. But if we look deeper at what is going on, we can see how it works to provide social, emotional and physical benefits for the patient, which I hope in turn supports the work of the staff on these wards.
Our music programme is different now, but what is it like when you perform to patients on the wards? What do you think the impact on them is?
My approach on the wards was to sing with people rather than to them. Armed with songs that might spark connections, I would settle onto a bay through gentle chat and suggest songs we might all sing together. Sometimes this might result in a one-to-one session of reminiscence through song, or more often a full-on singalong and dance involving patients and staff. It was always fun to see everyone let loose and share our love of a good song! And at other times, so beautiful to sit with one patient who needed that personal connection. The togetherness of these moments helps break through to our common humanity. Patients benefitted greatly from the physical activity of singing, calming the nervous system and strengthening breathing, but also from the benefits of group singing, where oxytocin is released through bonding, could be felt right across the ward.
How has your practice adapted in response to new measures? Have you been doing any interesting digital performances and workshops?
It has been quite a year for us all as we learn to adapt our practices to the new measures and restrictions caused by COVID-19. These measures will be in place for quite some time, so I have felt it important to grab what is possible from the available technologies and explore how we can create music in our communities. It isn’t possible for us to sing together at the moment, but the singing groups I run for Trinity Laban Conservatoire have managed to find ourselves a corner of the internet in which to meet. There was an urgency for me in getting the older adults I work with outside the hospital online together, as I could see the dangers of increased isolation for many of our participants who were shielding alone. We have managed to connect most of our groups through Zoom, and we have been experimenting and having fun trying to find ways to make music together there.
I feel my ethos, that connection is the most important element we need right now, has meant we are able to adapt more readily than some. We are not hung up on recreating our music-making of pre-Covid days and are rather looking at what we can do in the current circumstances. We’ve made virtual choir films, collaborated with The Queens House on a sound installation that is running beside the Armada Portrait and we’ve been taking the time to explore our own voices. The benefits of singing still remain; we can focus on our breathing and discovering our own sound, and the fact that we turn up for each other each week means we are sustaining our community and supporting one another through very worrying times.
I have co-curated a blog about my experiences which can be read here.
What is your favourite aspect of your work at the hospital?
The people I met! I loved the surprises in each new encounter on a ward. I never knew what might happen in a session and that really excites the performer in me. This work is completely relational and responsive; it is all about meeting people through music. I feel there is a lot yet to discover in this way of working.
I very much enjoyed my growing relationships with staff on the wards. I was always happy to have conversations and to get feedback from anyone who could see any way my work might support theirs. Just before we went into lockdown, the OT staff and I were planning a CPD session on using music and reminiscence as a way into establishing the receptive mood they needed for their sessions with patients.
Why do you believe music is important in a healthcare setting?
There is a wealth of research now on the physical benefits of singing, all of which are so important for older adults in a hospital setting, but I found some of the really interesting benefits lay in the social and mental wellbeing aspects of the work.
Feedback from patients was always around the transforming aspect of the sessions. Patients would often reflect how they felt “taken out of themselves”, letting loose and getting engrossed in a group physical activity like this can alter one’s mood considerably.
Because the music is created with the patients (they choose what we sing; engage one another to get involved; perform to one another), there is a sense of ownership and control that I think many older people are missing when in hospital. When we sing together, we form a community and that sense of belonging and purpose is a reminder to a patient that they have lots to give. A group singing session in which all are encouraged to contribute can be very empowering for the individual.
What are you working on currently/next?
While singing is not possible in group situations, it has been wonderful to see CW+ bringing music back into the ward where it is safe to do so. I very much look forward to a day when I can be there again, but in the meantime am so delighted to have the opportunity to help set up the hospital staff wellbeing choir – The Chelwest Singers.
As we look towards a day when we will sing together in a room one day, we are, in the meantime, looking to all the benefits of regular singing that can still be accessed. Breathing is fundamental to good singing and to good living! We are exploring breathing techniques that not only support our singing voices but also promote wellbeing through relaxation and stress relief. We’re taking an hour a week to show up to support one another, to break out of the routine of stressful working days and let go a little. And we’re even planning a virtual choir recording!
What advice would you give to other artists who might want to do similar work?
Volunteer with existing community art groups and leaders. Be open and ready to learn in every situation, and most importantly, bring the broadest definition of your idea of music-making.