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Communicating through music

By Joe Cleaver, Therapist

Last year, one of our therapists teamed up with Britpop legend Mathew Priest to offer flexible music workshop sessions with a therapeutic angle. They proved very popular with families at the House. Therapist Joe Cleaver explains:

“The initial drive for Britpop Therapy came around a year ago, when I was quite new to Chestnut Tree House. We had a small pot of funds to spend on music therapy and we were struggling to find a music therapist who had the flexibility we wanted. I am a qualified counsellor and therapist, but I also have 20 years of experience playing in bands, including time in a semi-professional band which toured up and down the country.

Shared experiences 

Music is a big part of my life and I still play in bands now. I have seen first-hand the benefit of the shared experiences that we can have through rhythm, through music. I also have a background of working in social care, in a residential home for children, where I met the musician, Mathew Priest. He was a drummer in the indie bands Dodgy and The Lightning Seeds among others and received international acclaim for his work. More recently, he has been working as a teacher of maths and music and I felt that his experience working with young people allied with his musical expertise would make him the right person to lead sessions at Chestnut.

Image of a child playing the piano

Music helps regulate anxiety

During our time at the residential home and school, it became clear to Matt and me that working with rhythm and drumming was hugely beneficial for these children with a real therapeutic need. We found that it regulated their anxiety and stress. Learning an instrument and gaining new skills also improved their self-esteem.

I had the idea that Matt could lead the music side of things with me mostly holding up the therapy side of each session – although there would be some crossover.

What we put together was something that became far more successful and accessible than even I had hoped. We ran the sessions over a period of six weeks, and it was very popular. Every Monday we had about four sessions available a day, some for individuals and others for family groups.

Image of a child playing the guitar

Reading the room

My role was to read where the family was at and what was needed. Often, they might come in and say, their son would like to try drumming, or their daughter wanted to play the keyboard. Other times, it was a case of recognising when a parent might be feeling frazzled and need some one-to-one counselling. In that scenario, I might go off and do that with Mum for an hour while Matt was doing drumming work with her child, their siblings or both.

We were able to do some repeat sessions for a few family groups and that was very beneficial because we could see some progression in what they were doing. We had whole families making music together. The most accessible form of music-making is rhythm – not even necessarily drums, but hitting sticks together or using whatever we have to hand. We are lucky at Chestnut to have a well-stocked music room, so people could grab whatever they wanted. We played rhythm-based games such as sending a pulse around the room or improvising our own beats.

It’s fun stuff, but easily accessible and incredibly mindful because you are grounded in that moment, doing that thing at that time. It’s connected because you are sharing a one-off experience with a group. Something a bit magic happens when you have a group of people performing something together. You are all mindfully connected in one purpose. It has a massive therapeutic benefit.

Playing music at Chestnut Tree House

Benefits of creating music for all children

You wouldn’t imagine working with music was necessarily accessible to deaf children, for example, but we had some really positive experiences. One family group was pleasantly surprised by the facts that we tried things out – that we were inquisitive about what might work for their son. One young man who had limited sight and limited hearing was able to work with the vibrations from drumming, drums, but also through amplified guitars or music playing through a speaker. By placing his hand on the speaker, that music was being felt as much as it was being heard by the group – he was having his own sensory experience but sharing the moment with the rest of the family.

As far as we know, this is the only project of its kind in a children’s hospice. While music therapy is widely established, it is a very specific thing delivered by specialist therapists. Our model perhaps offers greater flexibility and allows us to make music available to everyone, regardless of physical ability or sensory experience.

Building connections

During the project, there were several moments that felt like breakthroughs. The first was during a family session where we had a parent and child sitting on a large wooden glockenspiel. They had the combination of the sound, the vibration from the glockenspiel itself, and Mum was sitting with the young person helping them to repeat the rhythms back to us.

There was a sense in the room of the connected experience that was going on there. But we also saw smiles lighting up everyone’s faces. It was unquestionable that everyone was fully involved and connected in that experience at that time. That’s not an easy thing to do for these young people who have such sensory physical difficulties.

We also had a young person who was bedbound and immobile, as well as non-verbal. We played very specific music which had different types of emotive qualities, and we would try to sort of go through the gambit of the emotions, playing something that maybe would evoke happiness. We also worked through the difficult emotions such as anger and deep sadness.

This young person was moved to tears by the music. The staff who knew him well said it was not common for him to be happy and relaxed in that space to the extent of communicating emotions. It was a very powerful, moving thing to see.

Good vibrations

We're currently seeking funding to continue the Britpop Therapy project with Mathew Priest, but in the meantime, Joe will be running music sessions over the summer - if you're a parent or carer with a child or young person at Chestnut Tree House get in touch to find out about Joe's musical summer activities.

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