By Remel London | Published on 15 March 2019
As a radio host and TV presenter, I have interviewed many musicians and entertainers about their journey through music and I’ve seen just how transformational that can be.
I recently interviewed Nina Nesbitt, a Scottish singer-songwriter, to discuss her latest single and upcoming album. During our chat we talked about an organisation she got involved with last year - music therapy charity Nordoff Robbins which provides support for people with learning disabilities by using music therapy. Alongside nine other artists, Nina hosted a special gig in support of the charity’s Get Loud campaign, to share the message of how they change lives through music.
I was really intrigued by this, so after a quick search online, I found that the organisation has several Community Open Access Centres across England providing music therapy sessions, so as part of my work as a Line Resident for Southern Rail, I decided to hop on a train from London Victoria to Selhurst in Croydon to visit the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation Nordoff Robbins music therapy unit.
Just a few minutes’ walk from the station, the sessions at the unit are completely free and many of the Nordoff Robbins community projects and centres are easily accessible.
Joining a music therapy session
Every Thursday afternoon Music Therapist Harriet Crawford leads a community music therapy session for adults with learning difficulties. Attendees are encouraged to sing along to classic hits and pop songs of their choice, play musical instruments and enjoy a jam session with the skilled music leader.
When I arrived at the centre, Harriet was incredibly welcoming and showed me around the workspace which was filled with instruments such as a xylophone, egg shakers, a tambourine, numerous drum sets and the baby grand piano which she leads the session from.
After a quick run through of what to expect, I had a chat with Harriet about her work at the unit. “There are some quite keen musicians in the group and most of the people in the group have quite profound learning disabilities,” she explained. “Most of them can’t speak, although even if they can’t speak, it doesn’t mean they can’t understand.”
Harriet explained that by viewing music as a universal language, it can be used as a way to communicate, allowing everybody to feel comfortable, play their part, listen and fit in. There’s no pressure on anybody it’s a very low-stress environment.
Shortly after our chat, members of the group started arriving with their parents and carers. I could instantly see just how excited they all were to pick out their favourite instrument and they all started to play their chosen ones immediately.
Once Harriet had made sure that the group had settled in, she grabbed a guitar and encouraged them all to play their instruments as she kicked off the session with a ‘welcome song.’ The group clearly enjoyed improvising with the instruments and singing some of their favourite songs together throughout the session. I was overcome with emotion here; it was really moving to see the group members enjoying the music, taking part and using the music to express themselves in a new, fun way.
The power of music
There was a particular moment that almost brought me to (happy) tears, when Harriet placed wind chimes in front of a member of the group to try out. He slowly reached out to touch the instrument out of curiosity and his face immediately lit up. He continued to brush his hands back and forth on the chimes and smiled and laughed as he enjoyed using the new instrument. His smile was contagious, and I couldn’t help but smile along with him.
Harriet then moved on to the baby grand piano to accompany him. Then slowly the group continued to get join in on other instruments, improvising a bluesy tune on fun and engaging instruments, including a ukulele, drum and cymbal, while one young man picked out notes and rhythms on piano keys sitting alongside Harriet.
Another member of the group joined the session a little later and chose not to play any of the instruments, but instead cheerfully rocked and swayed along to the music with a huge smile on her face. She gazed contently as the other members sang and played until the session came to a close. In my chat with Harriet, she mentioned, “The music takes away the pressure for everyone to talk to each other. The way we are being together is by making music. So, people who can’t sing the words to the songs can still play the beat, or listen, or move to the music.
“I think it’s really nice for relatives and carers who come along as well, because it gives people a bit of break from being the sole carer if you’re looking after someone one-to-one. It gives everyone time to relax and have some fun! People get massive pleasure from seeing everyone achieving things in a different context and trying something new,” she added.
By the end of the session, I was incredibly pleased to have observed first-hand the benefits of Music Therapy. It's wonderful to see how the group are able to take new exciting steps to transform their lives through music.
I spoke to some of the parents and carers at the end of the session, and I learned that a lot of the group members previously weren’t comfortable in many social spaces or being around strangers like myself. One of the mothers particularly expressed how much she loved coming to the sessions, and all of the carers noted the improvements they have seen in the people they accompany to the group.
“The aim of the session is for all of these people who, for one reason or another, are quite isolated in their lives,” said Harriet. “They’ve got barriers to accessing music activities, to feeling comfortable being with other people, to getting around if they’ve got physical disabilities. The class serves to enable all those different people to come together, and just have a brilliant time. It’s as simple as that.”
Music in the community
Harriet is a great music teacher and an incredibly welcoming group leader who has helped, encourage and engage each member to ensure that they have the best experience. After the session I thought about how I could share this with people in my family - my younger cousin has autism and my grandmother has dementia – so I immediately informed my aunt and relatives of the incredible impact that music therapy can have on all people’s lives.
Nordoff Robbins provides workshops and projects in different locations for everyone; people with dementia, those with autism, learning difficulties, as well as friends, family members and carers. Sessions can also be organised for individuals, small or large groups or even in large public spaces, where the emphasis might be more on growing a sense of community.
What I learned from this inspirational trip is that all journeys have the power to be transformational and organisations such as Nordoff Robbins can help many of us to transform our lives with music.
Thank you to Harriet Crawford, the parents and carers in the music therapy session and all of the team at the Nordoff Robbins charity.
Thank you for reading my journey to music therapy and please look out for more of my travels with Southern Rail.
Photo credit: Adiam Photography