Artist Reflections on Returning to the Hospitals

By Andy Hall, CW+ Music and Sound Research Consultant

We recently undertook a project to document the thoughts and feelings of our resident Arts for All artists, following their return to our two hospital sites (Chelsea and Westminster and West Middlesex University Hospitals) in March 2021. 2020 saw the suspension of the Arts for All programme in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and social-distancing measures, and most of our artists subsequently moved their work to our Virtual Connections online platform. In March 2021, after twelve months of remote delivery, the easing of restrictions allowed for the partial restart of ‘in-person’ performances from Arts for All artists at the Trust’s two hospital sites.

Capturing the experiences of these artists as they return to the hospitals allows for the consideration of new practical adaptations which may be necessary post-pandemic, and creates a valuable document of this unique moment in the history of hospital-based arts programmes.

In order to do this, an online collaborative diary was set-up for the four returning artists to document and share their experiences, alongside a group discussion in which key themes emerging from the collaborative diary were explored in more depth.

The four returning artists were:

  • Alastair Collingwood, pianist and singer
  • Adrian Garratt, violinist
  • Mark Levin, harpist
  • Jesal Patel, Indian classical dancer

Thoughts and Feelings on Returning

Perhaps the most prominent theme emerging from the artists’ collaborative diary was that of joy at returning to play for patients and staff in the hospitals: Adrian Garratt wrote, ‘Quite simply, it’s great to be back on the wards because it’s such a fulfilling thing to do. Having positive interactions (musical or otherwise) with people, be they patients, staff, or visitors, is a wonderful rewarding way to spend time’. This was echoed in the group discussion by Alastair Collingwood: ‘It’s just lovely to be back, it’s a joy doing this’.

All the artists spoke of how warm the reception was from hospital staff. Adrian wrote, ‘I was taken aback at some staff’s happiness to see me. Some commented that even the initial email from Christina gave them so much joy – that the music was returning!’. This was reiterated by Alastair in the group discussion – ‘The main thing I’ve found is the warm welcome, it’s just been magnificent’ – and by Jesal Patel, who said she felt ‘really comfortable in the space, and the staff and everyone were so welcoming’.

For Mark, the enthusiasm of staff gave an indication of the pressure they have been under during the pandemic: ‘I returned to Crane Ward at West Middlesex and the staff were so happy … Seeing them and their reaction gave me a flavour of how hard things have been for them over the past year’.

It was also clear from the artists’ comments that much remained familiar and unchanged since their previous visits. ‘Being back on the wards feels mostly like old times for me’, wrote Mark. Alastair agreed, ‘In some ways it feels like such a long time… but to be honest, as soon as I started playing and interacting with the staff, it felt like we’ve never been away!’. Adrian summed up this feeling: ‘Overall, I feel that much more has stayed the same than has changed’.

Changes and New Considerations

Clearly, however, the pandemic has resulted in changes in both the hospital environment and the infection control protocols within these spaces, and these have had an impact on the work of our Arts for All artists.

Indian classical dancer Jesal Patel wrote, ‘It was great to get back into action but in a very different way. Simple costume, footwear, no bells and wearing a mask’. She explained that the rhythmic sound of dancing barefoot was compromised by wearing shoes (‘I will have to think about appropriate footwear that’s flexible but also good for sound’), and that the absence of worn bells also detracted from this.

Wearing a face covering also impacted our artists and how they deliver performances. Jesal commented that she felt that she ‘wasn’t projecting enough as a dancer, underneath that mask’. The physical demands of dancing also led to ‘difficulty in terms of breathing, because of the fast-paced pirouettes and the stuff we do, and obviously it’s constant’. She described her initial strategy for managing this: ‘Maybe I’ll just slow down my movements, which may help, but maybe also take a break, and have shorter slots of dancing, rather than going full-on’.

For the other returning artists, all of whom were musicians, mask-wearing proved less of a challenge, even though it did create some communication barriers. Adrian commented that, ‘You obviously lose a lot of communication, and it was a bit weird, but that felt normal quite quickly, so now that doesn’t really bother me’, whilst Mark added that ‘everyone is in a mask, it’s not like we’re the only people to turn up in a mask… it feels like people are more used to that’. Wearing masks also impacted how artists communicate with patients, with a greater emphasis on eye contact, body language and gestures. Jesal explained how she had become ‘much more aware of how to communicate with just my eyes and my eye brows’, but also that her body language towards patients was important. Alastair highlighted the importance of gestures in communicating, explaining that he had found himself ‘waving at people, which you wouldn’t do if you didn’t have a mask on. You sort of become this mime artist’. Mark also commented that ‘there are obviously barriers, but a thumbs-up or a little nod can go a long way’.

Looking back, looking forward

Overall, the prevalent feeling in the artists’ reflections was one of enjoyment and relief at being able to perform for patients and staff again. In the group discussion, Alastair commented that ‘it’s such a rewarding thing to do, to play in that situation, in particular given the last year – it seems to me that it’s been even more tangible’.  This sense of the work now having added meaning, in particular for staff, was echoed by Adrian: ‘Clearly they enjoy the music, but there’s also a sense of things potentially getting slightly more normal’.

There is an undeniable sense of excitement at returning to perform in-person for staff and patients at the Trust, and most evident in the reactions and comments of patients watching the performances. In the collaborative diary, Jesal captured one such moment: ‘When I went into Rainford Mowlem [Ward], three ladies got really excited when I told them I was going to perform. They really appreciated the art form and fell in love with the music. One of the ladies commented, “it’s a breath of fresh air”.’

Find out more about our Arts for All programme here, and more on our Research and Evaluation here