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Music and Creativity to Enhance Patient Care

Composer, Kora player and singer Holly Marland talks to us about her working day on the hospital ward.

As Lead Artist for Lime’s participatory art programme at Manchester Royal Infirmary and Patrick Cryne wards, Holly runs regular music sessions for patients with Teresa Lipinski, a Singing for Health and Well-being Facilitator. Before this Holly set up the Music for Health programme at the Royal Northern College of Music and is also a qualified Music Therapist with Nordoff Robbins & City University. She leads the musical collective ‘So Many Beauties’ which delivered Manchester’s first dementia-friendly music festival in 2019 and she continues to work co-creatively with diverse communities in health and social care settings. 

What happens on a ward during one of your sessions Holly?  

We usually try and check in with the Activity Coordinator to see what’s been going on the ward, what the day is like. We come to each session with a completely open mind.  

Firstly, we might do a walk around get a feel of the mood of the ward. Sometimes you can assess the mood as you walk through the door to get a sense if people are sleepy or if there is a level of stress.

We play our music in the bay areas, in lounges and at people’s bedsides. As we are moving into a bay area we are deciding if it is possible to create a musical experience with everybody that is in that space. Some people might be sleeping, some people might be in a lot of pain or be behind a curtain having a procedure, so we must be really attentive to what’s going on. Quite often we will start off by playing gently in the corridor space, just to let the music arrive before we are visible to the patients. On some of the older people’s wards, individuals can be hard of hearing so we may use body language to make the music more visual.  

We are creating music that suits the mood, if patients are very sleepy we will play very soft gentle music. If we sense that people are up for something a bit more uplifting, we might raise the tempo a little bit and sometimes the staff like to get involved. The more we have work on a ward, the more the staff are get familiar with the songs we do and join in with us.  

And do patients give you requests, do they say I would like to hear a particular song?  

Sometimes we ask people what their favourite kinds of music are, but the danger is that you can get treated like a jukebox and what we’re there to do is something very different. It is important to recognize we’re creating quite simple, beautifully crafted songs that are accessible for people to join in with that they haven’t heard before. The purpose of our music is to be live and responsive to patients according to how they feel on the day, we’re shaping the music and musical experience around them.   

When you and Teresa were playing on a session a patient who was listening said the music was ‘like a ray of sun coming in’.  

One point to make is that is that we improvise all the music. We never play anything in the same way, so it is not like we practice a piece and then we perform it. What we are doing is intuitively shaping the music according to the mood of the patients and the staff. The Kora can be very buoyant and energizing, playing rhythmic patterns but it can also be very peaceful and simple as well.  

We were in a ward the other week and the wife of a Polish patient was saying that she thought the sound at that moment was like church, which was an interesting observation, that it felt spiritual. The gentleman, even though he was struggling to speak because he had had a stroke, was very deliberately staring at the instrument. After we had stopped, he looked right at me and said “beautiful”, he really took time to say that word, even though he was struggling with his speech. Another patient in his 20s said it reminded him of the old-time music in Poland he used to hear with his family in Krakow. The music we are using is intercultural- it summons people in.  

What do the ward staff think about the music sessions?  

They have been brilliant. When we arrive, they say “Oh, it’s great you are here!” and they see the impact of the music on the patients. We have had some moments of tears where staff have been so moved by what they have seen. We’ve made good relationships with staff on all the wards and they are inviting us to work with individual patients to help with physio or distraction during procedures. 

What have you enjoyed most and what are you going to be working on next with Lime Arts?   

I am enjoying all the Lime projects; I have really enjoyed working in duos and working with visual artist Sarah Pink. I am looking forward to developing new projects this year.

To learn more about our participatory arts programmes visit  Adult Arts at MFT – Lime Art