What Happens When We Leave The Room?

Soundcastle Director, Jenni Parkinson, spent an inspiring two days at the International Conference of Culture, Health and Wellbeing in Bristol, discovering new ways of connecting the arts and health, and engaging in topical debates around creativity and ownership.

Amongst all of this forward thinking, Jenni presented our own provocation:

What happens when we leave the room?

We are living in an exciting time where it is becoming more and more widely accepted that the arts have a positive effect on health and wellbeing, and as a musician I am particularly fascinated by the growing body of evidence of music’s especially profound impact. We can see and hear about the development of new schemes and initiatives such as arts on prescription, arts interventions and arts projects of every description imaginable.

In the world of music, I often see projects based on a simple model, guaranteed to succeed time after time

Energy1. A musician comes into a room/school/hospital/care home/(add setting here)

2. The musician makes music with a group of people or individuals. Perhaps they listen, sing, play instruments or create music together.

3. The musician leaves, everyone has had a great time and is guaranteed to have an enhanced level of wellbeing at that point.

4. Repeat according to the schedule that funding allows.

I have some questions about this model. Firstly, if the musician is the person who comes into the room, what are the people who were already there? Are they non-musicians? Or are they participants, people lucky enough to take part in a situation that was created for them?  And then what happens when the musician leaves? Perhaps the instrument trolley goes back in the cupboard or the drums are packed away and put in the car. Does the music leave too?

For me, this is where there is a slight misalignment in our treatment of the concept that music enhances wellbeing. We understand wellbeing as a state, as something that can fluctuate, and something that we need to constantly take care of. But yet music is treated as an activity, and prescribed at set times, for fixed durations. Can wellbeing function on a schedule in the same way? Could we decide to have wellbeing at 11.00 each Monday morning? Does this mean that music can only enhance wellbeing at set times? It’s true that a musical experience may have a lasting effect, for a day, a month, maybe even a year. But wouldn’t a more sustainable attitude be to say that “having music as part of your life enhances wellbeing” or even, more boldly “being a musician enhances wellbeing”?

Being a musician could also be a state. Of course we don’t make music all day every day, but what if we knew we had that potential? What if music could become part of daily life? Would that in turn help our wellbeing?

ey-funOur society gives us a world where there are “musicians” and “non-musicians”. We all too often hear people say “I am not musical” or “I can’t sing”. The perceived “musicians” are the select few experts who have the right to create and perform music. Everyone else may be a participant or an audience. But scientifically it is almost impossible to be non-musical. As humans we respond to music while still in the womb, and musical memory is maintained in the brain to the very end of our lives. Ask those same people who think they are not musical if they sing to their children or whistle in the shower, and you may find that they are more musical than they realise.

What if we could make people believe that they are musicians, that music could be part of their lives? How could this happen?

I see it like this: If you teach somebody to sing a song, they can sing a song. They can sing the same song as many times as they like. If you teach somebody to write a song, they can write as many songs as they like whenever they choose to. And if you teach somebody to believe that they are a musician, they create whatever type of music they like, and can use music in any way their imagination allows them, for the rest of their lives.

Some research in Detroit looked at hormone levels in students after singing improvised and composed music. They found that after both activities the level of stress hormone was reduced, but only after improvised singing there was a rise in oxytocin levels, suggesting an increased feeling of bonding and connectedness. Could this show that when people create their own music, the impact on wellbeing is stronger than on purely recreating music that already exists?

Could it then follow that if we can give people ownership and autonomy over their own creativity, that this can have an even deeper impact on their wellbeing? Could this be a step towards aligning the concepts of the state of enhanced wellbeing, and the state of believing oneself to be an artist?

ipadAt Soundcastle, over our years of working in the community, we have been looking closely at how to hand over creative autonomy to the people we work with, and our Theory of Practice is a framework to guide facilitators through this process. We are not working with “participants”, and setting up situations for people to take part in. We are working with people, families, community members, musicians, collaborators, artists, and their narrative of the process will be equally as important as the facilitator’s. The long term goal of this framework could take many forms. Families may write songs together at home, staff in social care settings could lead impromptu jam sessions, or neighbours and community members might teach each other their musical skills. Music could become part of people’s daily lives in any way that they choose.

In any case we will always ask ourselves this question: What happens when we leave the room? Do we leave behind a group of people that did music that day? Or do we leave behind a group of musicians?