The music stopped. Then it started again.

I started working as a music therapist at Hill House four years ago. Almost every week since there has been live music for a couple of hours on a Thursday afternoon. It involves anyone who’s there at the time: residents, family members, staff coming in for ten minutes, or simply dancing through to the kitchen. The sitting room turns, gradually, from sleepy to lively. There might be unexpected musical participation as people sing, dance, play instruments, or just tap a foot. Sometimes you’ll see people mouthing the words to a song. Residents singing to their next-chair-neighbours. Staff noticing things they’d never seen residents do before. In a rare moment of intimacy the wife of one resident will hold hands and sing with her husband who, once-eloquent, no longer has spoken language. These afternoons are inevitably convivial, joyful. The atmosphere lightens. There is a sense of presence– people coming back, as it were, to themselves, and coming together in a powerful way. 

Gary doing a music therapy session via Skype during Lockdown2

Then the music stopped. Covid-19. In March 2020 almost all care homes in the UK were in crisis. Family visits and social activities ceased immediately as care homes valiantly adapted to the new situation to protect their vulnerable residents. I sat at home feeling helpless – thinking about what was happening at Hill House, worrying about the residents I’d grown so fond of, and wondering if the situation would spell the end of music therapy sessions. 

Three weeks later, the manager asked if I would continue the music sessions by Skype. My first thought was ‘this will be impossible!’. In those early days of the pandemic musicians all over the world were rapidly discussing online how to manage music therapy, music teaching, or music performance now. The talk was of synchronous and asynchronous timing – facing the simple fact that on the internet current technological limitations meant that we see quicker than we hear, so there’s a significant time-lapse that makes making music together in real-time challenging, and often unsatisfactory. I wondered how I could possibly manage this when the people I was making music with also had perceptual and cognitive challenges due to their age or disability…

But, of course, I tried. The first week care workers organised some residents in a row in front of the large TV in the living room that was linked-up to Skype, and I sat in front of my laptop miles away, singing and playing guitar and piano. To me, the first session felt chaotic and hopeless: the signal kept dropping out, and I felt I was singing to myself as I watched some of the residents I knew staring at the TV screen in what looked to me like puzzlement. But then a moment… Saul looked up at the TV, moved his arm upwards with the musical phrase, waited, and as I sang a downwards melody he gradually lowered his conducting arm along with my voice. Musical connection!The rest of the session was messy, probably unsatisfactory to everyone, but I’d learned something crucial: it waspossible. 

I’ve now done 22 of these Skype sessions. It’s helped me re-think how what it can mean to have a ‘successful session’. Often these sessions are messy, sometimes confused (with all of us equally confused as to what’s going on!). My vision of the room is limited (mostly I see just the front of the room). We see each other in two dimensions. The internet signal is intermittent.  Of course, residents are often sleepy or not feeling up for it – though this is no different from when music was live. 

Despite the difficulties, there are moments when it clicks. When people seem to look right through the TV, right through the physical distance that separates us. There is mutual learning and support as all of us adapt to the constraints. Residents are singing to each other again. They are pointing to the TV screen, alerting each other to what’s going on. Staff are singing with the residents, dancing with them, dancing with each other. Staff members say that in these tough times when they are stressed and over-worked, just five minutes of doing live music with the residents and with each other makes all the difference. “It’s therapy for us” is what they have said.

For the Care for Music Research Project, dealing with these constraints has led to what we are beginning to realise constitutes a series of ‘accidental experiments’. Facilitating musical connection in extremishas opened up new ways of thinking about what it means to be musically connected. It has put the spotlight on many skills and capabilities we did not know the residents had. It has highlighted their care for music, and their desire to sustain musical encounters. And it’s opened up new questions and topics – specifically how any ‘successful’ musical event is a collaborative, and multi-media, multi-sensory, effort, something immensely richer than an ‘intervention’. So now in our research around this topic we’re asking the question, what might this time of social distancing teach us about musical connection and how can what we learn be feed back into music making once – hopefully – we can be together again in the same room? To be continued…

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