‘Music is the universal language of mankind’ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Walking down the corridors of our Day Therapy wing today I heard the sound of gentle singing and the soft strum of strings. I guessed that an Autoharp lesson was taking place for one of our clients Meg. It sounded rather beautiful and so I stopped for a moment to enjoy the music.
After pausing to listen I thought about how music therapy has always been an integral part of Mildmay’s work across the years. Music is such an important way for people to access feelings, explore self-expression, build confidence and a sense of purpose. Playing any form of instrument also supports physiotherapy as it exercises hands, voice and helps to build cognition and memory. We find people who struggle with their memory can often remember a tune or the words to a song and through that can gain access to other memories and feelings.
I thought it would be good to talk to John our lovely volunteer to find out a little bit more about how he became involved with Mildmay.
John first arrived at Mildmay around 18 months ago in answer to a call for help made by our head of chaplaincy Sister Bernie, to the Autoharp Association. One of our Day Therapy clients Meg, who is visually impaired showed signs of being very musical and although she had been learning to play the guitar, she was struggling and was keen to try to learn to play the autoharp.
When John first met Meg her memory was very poor and she had little to no flexibility in her hands, but she had a deep love of music and a strong desire to learn.
“I knew immediately that to work with written music was not possible as Meg is visually impaired, but her enthusiasm and determination was greater than her many challenges. She absolutely loves music and to sing, her progress has been remarkable. Her confidence and ability has developed, the strength of her voice has grown and her memory has improved phenomenally. She is absolutely brilliant – I work her really hard but she has stuck with it. I have found Meg a smaller and lighter version of the autoharp and have removed some of the keys so she can play more easily. We’ve worked on loads of different tunes, and songs.”
John is reluctant to take all the credit for Megs progress. Sister Bernie works steadily with Meg in his absence to encourage and support her progress. It is clear that John’s visits, patience and steadfast encouragement mean so much to Meg and the time spent at Mildmay also means an awful lot to John.
“Working with Meg is also a really lovely experience for me, I get such positive feedback and to do something so worthwhile makes me feel worthwhile. When I hear her play it goes straight to my soul, it really is a special experience to be able to inspire and watch someone explore something they clearly get so much out of.”
When Meg first came to Mildmay she hardly spoke at all, she was withdrawn and would sit unmoving and unresponsive. Now she is confident, has strong opinions and is full of life and determination. Through music she has found a form of self-expression that brings her joy as well as peace.
John was then approached by Sam, another patient who asked if he too could learn to play. John explained “Sam is only able to use one arm and so to play the autoharp, which involves pressing buttons and strumming, was almost impossible. But, I felt I could not refuse and that there must be a way around this problem! I contacted an on-line forum to see if anyone knew of anything that could be played with one hand. I got enough suggestions to give me some ideas and I ended up making an instrument especially for Sam. It took me about two weeks to build, I only have a very small flat and limited tools so everything got into quite a mess! The result was worth it and we now have a unique instrument called Tigger, so named because it’s a one off and ‘the most wonderful thing about tiggers is, I’m the only one!’
Progress for Sam is slow, but seeing how far Meg has come means that I know anything is possible!”
Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.