Music for wellbeing – a positive way through lockdown

Mairéad Sheerin, head of music at the Blackheath Conservatoire, explains how music can help us through the isolation of lockdown.

Whilst having a conversation with a colleague about a particularly anxious student and the therapeutic value of music, art and drama at Blackheath Conservatoire, he commented, ‘Well, we have been doing this for generations!’. He then related how, in researching for his blog bowleybear.blogspot, he’d discovered that traumatised soldiers coming home from WWI were sent from Bermondsey Military Hospital in Ladywell to take courses with us at the Conservatoire. They gave exhibitions of their work and that pioneering concept grew into the art and music therapy which is so valued today.

As musicians and teachers we regularly see the transforming effect that music and learning an instrument has on our students. They may walk in tightly wound, after a tricky day at work, and we see them as they breathe deeper, focus and engage; we feel sluggish teenagers catch music’s spark and energise; we see toddlers react, dance and sing with joy. If we look at the science, it has been demonstrated that music-making exercises the brain as well as the body, and singing is particularly beneficial for improving breathing, posture and muscle tension. Listening to and participating in music has been shown to be effective in pain relief, too, probably due to the release of neurochemicals such as β-endorphin (a natural painkiller responsible for the ‘high’ experienced after intense exercise). There are also studies which suggest that music can play a role in sustaining a healthy immune system, by reducing the stress hormone cortisol and boosting the Immunoglobin A antibody.

When I listen to my students and choir members talk about their experiences, the comment I hear most often is that lessons or rehearsals are an oasis in their week, a time when they can leave their troubles at the door and focus on something which has nothing to do with everyday life. And then, when they feel themselves progressing, they experience that amazing positive physical and mental feedback loop: the more they progress, the more they put into it; and this isn’t motivated by their boss, their family or money – this is just about themselves and the reaction of their bodies and minds to music.

What about those many people whose mental health affects their everyday lives? I cannot think of a musician who hasn’t had difficulties. What about our students? One of my students recently revealed: ‘Singing is one of the only times in my week when I feel completely calm and focused. I experience OCD and sometimes this can bring me very low: the noise of my thoughts can feel overwhelming, and in the past have made me feel like I want to end my life. My lessons give me a space where I can leave the world and my worries at the door, and feel the incredible freedom and joy of singing take over my mind.’

So how does this work when we move lessons and courses online? That’s the big question. Without that physical presence, are the benefits still there? I have to say, when lockdown happened and we were forced to close the doors to the Conservatoire and considered taking our courses online, I was sceptical. Could the Conservatoire preserve the integrity of our Early Years programme which, far from being a ‘singalong’ affair, draws from the methodologies of Kodaly, Dalcroze and Colourstrings, when concentrated into a 30-minute pre-recorded video? The answer is a resounding yes! Those important musical building blocks are still there, the children are still having fun – they just get to take part as many times as they want. Parents can pause the videos as they run to get the percussion ‘instrument’ their tutor has given them instructions how to make. One of our group theory students (a teenager preparing for Grade 5 theory) described her Zoom lesson as ‘the most fun I’ve had for weeks’. Yes, fun with Grade 5 theory.

As for individual instrumental lessons – one of our young adult pianists, a Conservatoire bursary student, who has been furloughed and is preparing for his DipABRSM, described how the time is giving him more time to research and link his research with his playing – he has ‘the time to memorise my pieces so that I can focus on overall feeling and moods (and the techniques that allow them)’.

We are mindful that summer holidays may be a wishful dream so we are going to put out new ‘box-sets’ for each Early Years age-group – music and art – we will also continue our teenage drama group, introduce new art techniques to those adults who sign up to our Zoom classes, and we are continuing individual tuition in instruments and singing. We are looking at other one-off opportunities – Zoom comedy stand-up classes, anyone?!

As for our 70 plus tutors, it’s part of my job to make sure they are all healthy too. I check in with them regularly – many live alone, some have had to move back to live with parents, many have families to home-educate. The response is largely very positive and I put this down to their expertise, versatility, the fact that they had already built up great relationships with their students but, most importantly, their passion for their students to progress and their need to share music. That’s all any musician wants!

This article originally appeared in Classical Music, the leading magazine supporting professional musicians to build and sustain successful careers. Save 20% on subscriptions with discount code 'ABRSM20' here.

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