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The power of music in children’s hospice care

By Jack Northeast, Activities Team Leader at Chestnut Tree House

Music is a universal language. It’s something that we all understand, and it connects us all no matter where we’re from, how old we are, whether we’re deaf, non-verbal, or have any other additional needs.

It can evoke a memory, lift a mood, create calm, or express how we’re feeling. And for the children and young people Chestnut Tree House care for, music is something they can all be a part of.

Music is everywhere

Listen carefully and you’ll find you’re never far from music at Chestnut Tree House. Whether it’s a family drumming session in the woodland walk, a storytelling singalong in the music room, a karaoke night, or a quiet corner to listen to a favourite song – music is at the heart of so much of what we do.

Here at the House there’s a dedicated music room full of instruments including guitars, keyboards, drums and shakers. It’s really important that everyone can join in, no matter what their needs, so there’s also some instruments you might be less familiar with – like our interactive Beamz music system that allows the children to make different sounds simply by touching the laser beams with their hands.

The team can also take musical activities into children’s homes, and all through the year families are invited to the House to enjoy performances by musicians including community choirs, dance companies, steel bands and occasionally even the odd popstar!

Nurse and child playing piano at Chestnut Tree House

The first thing Maisy-Leigh will do on any visit is head straight to the music room. Her favourite thing is playing piano with Jack from the Activities Team – she likes to put her hands over his on the keys and they can sing and play for hours.

- Hayleigh, Maisy-Leigh’s mum

Everyone can interact with music

There’s a common misconception that deaf people can’t enjoy music, but no one has helped break down these barriers more than Strictly Come Dancing winner, Rose Ayling-Ellis, who made history as the show’s first ever deaf contestant in 2021. She’s shown us all that music isn’t just about what you hear through your ears; it’s about what you feel, what you see, and the way your body moves and reacts to the music. It taps into all your senses, and at Chestnut Tree House it transcends all communication barriers.

There’s one young man we care for who is profoundly deaf, and he loves the music room. His favourite thing to do is lie on the giant xylophone so he can feel the rhythm and vibrations as the keys are struck. Or, he’ll sit with a drum on his lap in a group session. He might not be playing the instrument, but he’s still part of the group, still connected to the same beat.

For another child we care for who is blind, his whole world is music. He’s never without his keyboard and he expresses himself through his performances and always gets everyone dancing! Then there are other children who are non-verbal, but the first sound you might hear them make on a visit is when we put on their favourite tune. Or, children who don’t have a lot of mobility and might not have moved much all day, but suddenly you’ll see legs flying and arms waving to music. If they are completely immobile, they might like us to sit next to them and move their hand to the beat or we’ll wheel their chair around the room so they can dance and interact with the other children.

It brings us all together

At Chestnut Tree House, we’re all like a family under one roof. We eat together, we play together, and we make music together.

Music is all about sharing and there’s nothing better than getting everyone together – children, parents, siblings, carers, and staff – to sing, dance, socialise and make lots of noise.

Most of the children and young people we care for have complex conditions which can sometimes leave them feeling cut off and isolated, but when we all create music together there’s an amazing feeling of connection. We’re all listening; we’re all feeling the beat; we’re all part of that moment.

Music sessions are always guided by what the children and young people want to do and how they might be feeling that day. If they’re feeling tired or overwhelmed then we might sing calming ballads together, but equally if energy levels are high then it’s quite normal to find us all having a full-on disco at 1pm in the afternoon!

Music expresses feeling and thought, without language; it was below and before speech, and it is above and beyond all words.

- Robert G. Ingersoll

Where words fail, music speaks

Music can also help navigate emotions and make a statement about our identity. For example, some of the Chestnut teenagers spend loads of time writing songs and their lyrics can be a way of processing their feelings and frustrations where conversations might be hard to have. They’re also part of a teenage Youth Group who love to hang out and play their favourite bands. Sometimes they don’t say much at all but will connect and form relationships with each other through their musical tastes and choice of songs. In a few months’ time the Youth Group are all taking part in a DJ workshop and they’ll be putting their new skills to the test by DJing at their own summer party!

As well as bringing joy, there are occasions when music is used to help family members through difficult times. From playing calming guitar at a child’s bedside at home, to spending an afternoon with a sibling who wants to record a song as a way to remember their brother or sister. Or, helping a family to create a playlist full of songs that hold special memories after their child has died.

Inclusive. Fun. Therapeutic. Music is all these things and more, and however our children, young people and their families want to engage with music, we’re here to help make that happen.

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