O Come All Ye Faithful

For me, as for so many people, Christmas comes with a soundtrack – not a playlist, because it’s more about what we all hear at this time of year. There are carols, sung in church or around a tree or heard on the radio. Then there are Christmas songs, old and new. Some people think they’re played too early each year. Obviously I like some more than others, but they brighten the dark, cold days of early winter – as do the light shows and festive lights in homes and gardens which have become so popular.

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Thinking about music for wellbeing, it’s as a unifying force that music can come into its own – a shared experience, shared creativity. Christmas is the only time in the year when many people come together with others to share in singing – in church or at an outdoor event. The novelty of this communal music-making helps make carols all the more memorable and powerful for people. Others might find themselves singing along to carols or songs on the radio, on TV or online, particularly as Covid 19 is still overshadowing gatherings. Still others sing regularly in choirs or singing groups, many because they find it helps their mood and wellbeing, and Christmas music will be integral to their repertoire. Either way, carols and songs become and remain a shared, common heritage.

Like most music, carols can conjure all different moods. They can be joyful, hopeful, celebratory, plaintive or wistful. They might be lively with a strong beat, sung by a crowd, or they might have the most impact heard sung by a cathedral choir. They’re traditionally sung by candlelight, maybe followed by mulled wine or mince pies – sights, sounds and tastes which brighten Christmas. And they sing of faith and hope, of God’s presence in the Nativity which Christmas is all about.

They’ve stood the test of time too – I learned the other day that it was St Francis of Assisi who introduced community carol singing. He alsco created the very first public nativity scene.

Another aspect to explore here is how many people struggle with Christmas, in all different ways, as issues they live with throughout the year come to a head – maybe depression, loneliness or family conflict. There’s immense pressure on people to have a wonderful time, and it’s simply unlikely to be like that for many. And music and song can themselves contribute to this. Song lyrics idealize Christmas as an endless part, bathing us all in a warm glow – but making many people feel sidelined and left out. Moreover, music is so closely linked to memory that carols and songs can revive memories very strongly, which could be bittersweet, only exacerbating sadness at this time of the year.

But music and song could also be one part of Christmas which people might still respond to, even if they find this a difficult time. Carols and songs lift mood, sometimes at the most unexpected moments. And for people with dementia, for whom music is so helpful, carols could be the best way to draw them in to the festivities.

Whether people long for Christmas or dread it, carols can transport us to a different place, lifting Christmas to another level, infusing an element of wonder.

It would be great to hear any responses in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you!

Freedom Far Away

As winter sets in, it’s easy to feel less connected to nature – as going outside is cold and sometimes impractical, and even if you do venture out the countryside looks bare and lifeless. Turning instead to books about nature or about travelling in the great outdoors is a great way to immerse yourself in nature while indoors more.

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One book I’ve read a couple of times, which brought far flung nature alive for me, is “Terra Incognita: Travels In Antarctica” by Sara Wheeler. Not only does it reveal what this little-known continent is really like, but it also explores the impact of Antarctica and of nature on the author’s mood, emotions and wellbeing. On the very first page she introduces themes of freedom and belonging. For Sara, Antarctica combines the two: it is at once a refuge from commitment and a place to feel at home. She returns to this sense of escape and of contentment throughout the book.

Central to Sara’s response to Antarctica is the different perspective it opens up for her, on life and the wider world. Time and space seem different there, amid vast untouched ice. This eases the fears and depression which has hovered around her for a long time. Her own preoccupations seem less important as Antarctica’s landscape absorbs her mind, refocusing her away from the world’s troubles. In Antarctica she feels her despair recede.

Her time there also renews her faith, as she feels a certainty in God, and a sense of harmony as never before.

She quotes other travellers, some who knew Antarctica, and others who traversed different parts of the world, like Wilfrid Thesiger, who found what he was seeking in desert lands, and nowhere else. And as her time on the ice draws to a close, Sara begins to wonder what will happen when she has to leave and return to her old way of life. Will the old struggles return? Will life even seem more of astruggle than before?

So this is a book to read on different levels. Although from the UK, Sara travelled to Antarctica as part of the American National Science Foundation’s Antarctica Artists’ and Writers’ Programme. She spent almost a year there, staying on different bases with different hosts. Sara writes about cold and ice, about flying on small resupply planes, about penguins and blizzards, about sleeping in an igloo. She shares the beauty of Antarctica’s sunsets and glaciers and the southern lights, but also shares how people experience sensory deprivation on Antarctica, so that returning home they are struck by colours and smells.

At one point Sara discusses why she found being in Antarctica different to time spent in nature in other places. It was the vast scale of the continent that gave her this new perspective, this certainty, this freedom from the fears that plagued her. It enabled her to “believe in paradise”.

This is a book about a remote land, but it illustrates how nature can transform our inner journeys as well. Do you have any responses to share, or would you like to recommend a nature or travel book? It would be great to hear any responses in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you!

Colour And Line

I wonder what first springs to mind when you think about abstract art? For me, it would be Mondrian’s clear, ordered colour grids. But this “geometric” style is only one side of abstract art. Other, non-geometric abstraction covers diverse styles, from Pollock’s drip paintings to the work of Barnett Newman, Jasper Johns or Robert Delaunay. And obviously abstract art is still emerging in the present day.

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The main question I’m exploring here is how abstract art could prove particularly mindful and boost mental wellbeing. Time and again, people experiencing mental health issues say they feel stuck, trapped, mired, overwhelmed by obsessive & intrusive thoughts or by fear or loneliness. This can span different mental health conditions, from OCD to depression, agoraphobia to anxiety. Abstract art grew up as a movement for change, and can be seen as deeply freeing and liberating. Unlike figurative art, which focuses on representing the world around us, abstract art casts aside limits. By reducing – or changing – its focus to colour and line, abstract art is all about experimenting and exploring. So I wonder if looking at abstract art, or trying abstract art yourself, could be helpful for people, opening up new and freer ways of thinking and being.

Maybe experimenting with abstraction for yourself could lift mood and wellbeing. Trying a drip painting or drawing a colour grid could become mindfulness in action. Clearing the mind by setting aside representation could be helpful and positive, for example playing around with colours to express mood.

Moreover, as it is non-representational, abstract art is further removed from everyday life and the world at large. So while all art can be a haven and a refufe away from whatever issues people may have in their lives at the time, maybe abstract art can be a particular refuge. Interacting with colour and line, not with figures or scenes, there may be less likelihood of triggering.

But abstract art as a movement developed its roots firmly in lived experience. While it truly is aout colour and line, on another level many abstract artworks explore actual themes like exile, war and conflict. Abstract art grew and expanded during the 1940s, particularly amidst refugees who’d left Europe for the USA.

Maybe it’s also important to look at abstraction’s first beginnings: gradually developing from other movements like Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism. Little by little it became ever more experimental and less conventional. Was this a longing for freedom and self-expression? Was it rebellion, or a need to find new art forms?

In some ways Abstract Expressionism was itself used to focus thought and enotion. Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko used colour planes to encourage viewers to think deeply about their own emotional response to particular colours. So abstract art is not about shutting out thought: by eliminating the figurative, maybe it draws on mood all the more.

Try looking at a Rothko or Newman painting, or try your own drip painting or colour patterns – and think what impact it has on you. It would be great to hear any responses in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you!

Mirroring My Mind

When music can creare and convey a mood with just a few beats, it’s no wonder that emotions and music & song are deeply interwoven on different levels. And this throws up many questions, exploring how and why music mirrors what we think and feel – or do we mirror the music?

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One way music truly mirrors our minds is in its diversity and its power to change in a moment. Just as music can suddenly turn from joy to pain, from darkness to light, so too can our moods and emotions. Music might do this by drawing on different instruments, a new beat, rhythm or time signature. Our mood can be changed by a thought, a memory, a sudden sight or experience – or a sound, a song or piece of music. You might feel down or simply tired, only to hear a familiar, lively song with a strong beat, and feel renewed. So not only does music’s own variability reflect our own unsettled emotions, but it can also spark them.

Maybe here it is also important to remember that the emotions music awakens in us can be negative and painful, not just positive. This might be because it’s linked to difficult memories or regrets, maybe a song you heard at a painful time. It might be because song lyrics remind you of issues you too are enduring. Or it might be that the music’s sheer beauty is just too poignant, too bittersweet. Music can make us think, and feel, too deeply.

Thought is integral to music’s impact and to the questions I’m exploring. Do we want music to stimulate thought, to help us think more deeply? Or do we want music and song more as an escape, as a refuge, a haven? Is it a way to shut out unwelcome thoughts, to quieten our minds so that music is all, for a time anyway?

This could be helpful for peple struggling with the kind of intrusive thoughts experienced by many with OCD – or for many other people who long to set aside thought for a while and simply be.

One question leads on to another. Is this true of instrumental music more than songs? If people want to shut out thoughts, is it easier to do that with instrumental music, when music becomes another language with no words to disturb us? Or do song lyrics actually help by replacing our own thoughts with someone else’s words?

Maybe a lot depends on the actual issues. So many songs focus on love and relationships. They might seem to express just what you yourself are feeling, so you feel less alone. Or they might be a world away from your own fears or experiences.

Music can also help some people express emotions – by freeing emotions which they were bottling up, which could be traumatic but also maybe liberating. Again, can instrumental music be more helpful here? When there are no words to limit our minds to one theme, we may be more free to interpret music to fit our own mood.

I would really like to hear your thoughts on any or all of these questions. It would be great if you would like to share in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you!

Living Memory

Why might trees have a particular part to play in remembrance? How and why do they help us commemorate? With Remembrance Day here once again, a striking example of trees used to commemorate war came to my mind.

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A while ago I heard about trees planted as a memorial to the World War One Battle of Vimy Ridge. On the battle site is a 100 hectare park planted with a forest. In that forest are some 60,000 trees, each one planted to commemorate one of the 60,000 Canadian troops who died there in 1917. The forest was planted by the French nation as a gift to the people of Canada, a tribute to this horrendous loss of life. Walking through that forest must be a powerful and dramatic experience. Underlining the sheer scale of the death toll from that one battle alone.

The First World War and other wars have long been commemorated by many different kinds of memorials across different countries, mostly built or sculpted monuments, maybe in stone, brick, granite or marble. They may be inscribed with the names of the fallen, or take the form of statues. There are also cemeteries with serried ranks of crosses and headstones. So a forest could be just another form of memorial, but it has an impact all its own.

Trees grow and live. They have come to represent endurance and longevity. They are part of nature’s seemingly endless cycle of life and of renewal. On deciduous trees, new leaves form in spring, only later to tint and fall, only for new buds to form and open once again. Evergreen trees themselves represent durability and endless growth. So trees form a living and ever-changing memorial. In this way they link past and future differently than would a stone monument or a memorial window. Back to the cedars of Lebanon in the Bible, trees seem a symbol of solidity and strength, as they stand sentinel and command the view.

In no way is war the only occasion for trees to be planted as a form of remembrance. They may also be planted by bereaved families, friends or communities to commemorate lost loved ones. This might be on a large or small scale. The UK’s National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire has become an important place to remember those who have gone before. But many people might simply plant one sapling in a garden, churchyard, park or other open space as a private act of remembrance, a way to mark a loved one’s life. Or they might dedicate a tree in a nature reserve woodland or forest to their memory. Trees’ use in this way highlights how significant are place, landscape and nature in our experience.

Trees grow in the present, and as they do so they draw on the past (on soil and on roots laid down over years) and reach ahead to the future (as they grow and seed). Maybe this is partly why they fit as memorials? And supporting as they do many other species of life forms, from insects to birds, they are themselves havens of life.

It would be great if you’d like to share thoughts on trees as memorials in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you!

Creative Climate

Hitting the headlines this fortnight is the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, as negotiators and world leaders discuss and map our possible routes to net zero carbon. It all comes down to commitments, finance, deals and agreements. But it all stems from the pace of change across the world, and the future of many different ecosystems, habitats and environments. Art can remind us of all this. How so, you might ask?

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One artist who highlights climate change’s realities on the ground is Zaria Forman. From her home in the USA, she travels the world to capture some of the impacts of climate change in large-scale pastel drawings or paintings. To reach remote places, she sometimes takes part in expeditions or missions led by major organisations. These range from a residency on National Geographic’s Explorer (to experience winter in Antarctica) to flying with NASA’s Operation Ice Bridge over Greenland and Arctic Canada.

It’s no wonder that Zaria’s travels have focused partly on polar regions, as the Arctic and Antarctic are parts of the world where climate change may be seen most starkly. She has produced and exhibited colourful pastels of Antarctica’s ice, recreating what for most of us can be only a land of the imagination. Other locations for her work also find themselves at the epicentre of global warming – Greenland, where the ice cap is retreating and melting, and Svalbard, a remote archipelago within the Arctic Circle. It was Zaria’s pastels of ice in Antarctica and Greenland which really struck me for the way they convey the scale and the otherness of such landscapes. However, she has also travelled to warmer climes to draw different impacts, like the Maldives, where sea level is the main concern.

Other artists have also developed responses to the climate and nature emergency. One is Gennadiy Ivanov, who lives in Norwich. 2019 saw him travel to boreal forests and mountains in Canada with climate scientists from UEA. This was an opportunity to take part in a climate research project and to explore threatened nature in these settings. Nor was it focused solely on Canada, but also explored Norfolk’s own issues of coastal erosion. The project’s title “Transitions:Ice-Water-Cloud” highlights its main themes.

These two artists have travelled to specific, extreme environments where climate change may be more rapid and more obvious. By collaborating with scientists they have seized rare opportunities to experience and share in research from the inside. But any person in any country could use a pencil, paintbrush or needle to explore the climate and nature emergency from home. This could be by painting an actual or imagined lanscape; by drawing or crafting images of wildlife to mark species loss; or by painting or drawing an abstract picture to explore feelings and emotions about the emergency, maybe using colour bands or shapes. Photography can be another medium to use. All different media and styles can play a part.

Art like this becomes a tool for action and for awareness. Art can help us see nature’s beauty with new eyes, and can also highlight how threatened that beauty may be, and how threatened may be the future of all who or which depend on it.

It would be great if you’d like to share any responses to this – or any green-themed artwork of your own! – in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you!

Off The Scale

Last Monday was World Opera Day, so I’m writing here about opera – another in my occasional series of posts highlighting particular music genres and how they might boost wellbeing in different ways. I’ve already considered musicals, ballet, folk and jazz – now it’s opera’s turn.

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Opera is high drama. Costumes, sets and lighting all build atmosphere, and the singing & plot transport this to another level. Most operas run through diverse emotions, from despair to hope, joy to horror, rage to exhilaration. There are few half measures in opera, it’s all about extremes.

Maybe this is one way opera might help wellbeing – by exploring mood and emotion and raising them to be the focus of performance. There’s no question of reining in emotion, of the stiff upper lip or of bottling up your feelings. Emotions in opera can be off the scale. This might be liberating to watch, to hear or to perform: an opportunity to open up as you respond. You could try this and see – search opera on You Tube maybe, and see how watching and listening make you feel. Obviously opera’s impact will depend on the opera, the hearer and the time – as our moods alter, we might respond to an opera differently from one time to another.

Opera could also be an escape, time out from the everyday in a very different setting. While new operas go on being written, many of the most famous have stood the test of time and now present to us an unfamiliar world. They are also set in different countries and sung in different languages. And opera is all about contrasts: tragedy vs. comedy, fantasy vs. reality, solos vs. chorus.

Like ballet and musical theatre, opera combines music with plot, drama and visual stimulus, so its multi-sensory, which can help wellbeing. This is particularly true for people who have autism or SEN.

Opera is a crowd or group art form. Composer and writer work together on the score and libretto, before many more people contribute to the final production and to each performance. And if you attend a performance in person, you experience opera alongside others as part of an audience. The way so many people missed the audience experience when theatres were closed during the pandemic illustrates just how important it is for many to feel united with others as they share a performance.

To some people, opera’s links with wealth, and the glamour and fame o great opera houses and opera singers, make it all the more of an escape from the everyday. For others, it might make opera seem too exclusive, a closed world. Only recently have live streamings widened opportunities to attend opera. Another possible barrier could be that some of us find operas too long. Sitting through an opera might improve concentration an dfocus in the long run, but it first requires patience.

A final thought – there’s also operetta or light opera, more comic and maybe less intense. This is also an escape or refuge for people and a chance to unwind. Laughter can be the best medicine as they say.

It would be great if you would like to share any thoughts on opera and wellbeing in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you!

Opening Up Nature

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The other day I came across a magazine feature about beetle research, inviting citizen scientists to record the beetles they see. Insect sightings and citizen science might seem unlikely themes for a wellbeing blog. But it struck me that taking part in research like this is another, different way of connecting with nature, with all its proven benefits for mood, mental health and wellness.

I remember hearing a few years ago about an interview with a (professional) scientist, who reflected that it was his long years observing bird species which had given his life purpose and direction. And as that was true for him, so too can taking part in nature observation add new purpose and direction to all our lives, and so improve mental wellbeing.

Citizen science can be a confusing expression, but it’s all about empowerment: giving power to the people. It opens up science to all of us. What could seem a closed world behind the laboratory door, with unfamiliar language, is thrown open, and our contribution is welcomed and needed. Purpose and direction absolutely.

I used to record the timings of spring and autumn natural events as part of The Woodland Trust’s Nature’s Camendar initiative. Remembering to complete the form and log sightings was a spur to look and observe more closely. It drew me in, so that the timing of leaf fall, the first rowan berries or the departure of the last swallows in autumn mattered more. Taking part reinforced and deepened nature connection for me.

Technology has created new opportunities for people to help, for example as they submit and share photographs or video to aid identification, and use apps like the Mammal Tracker app.

Taking part in citizen science can also be positive for wellbeing as a small but still significant way of contributing to conservation work or lobbying. Records submitted by citizen scientists enable researchers to build a wider and clearer picture of different phenomena. The more data is gathered, the stronger the case for conservationists and policy makers to act for change. So citizen science could help people who feel depressed, anxious or disillusioned by biodiversity’s decline, to harness those feelings to act in these small but practical ways.

Species distribution, bird migration, insect identification, phenology (the timing of natural events): citizen scientists submit many thousands of records every year, across different areas of research. In the Uk many are connected to the Biological Records Centre, although they may be overseen by diverse organisations. And citizen science is worldwide as well. Citizen scientists’ sightings of platypus in eastern Australia are helping monitor the decline of these under-recorded creatures, as just one example.

Nature connection boosts wellbeing particularly by absorbing people’s minds and a sa way to live more in the moment, so that regrets, trauma or fear can be hushed and set aside for a time. Citizen science could contribute to this as it deepens people’s connection, making it more active and participatory (as can planting and growing, for example). It can also be uplifting as an opportunity to learn more about the wonders of nature.

Do you take part in citizen science, or would you like to share other thoughts or responses? It would be great if you would like to share any experiences in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you!

Art On A Journey

On October 19th, a young Syrian refugee will cross the Channel and step ashore in Kent towards the end of a long journey. But this coming ashore will be different to so many others. This young “girl” is actually a puppet called Little Amal, and her journey is a way of highlighting what life is like for young and unaccompanied refugees.

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When I heard about Walk With Amal, it set me thinking about puppetry as an artform and how striking it can be, combining art & craft with drama & performance. It uses materials, colours and shapes to create a mobile artwork which can personify a character or an experience in powerful ways. The character of Little Amal began life on stage, when Good Chance Theatre performed the migration-themed play The Jungle, set in Calais.

Walk With Amal demonstrates how art can become a tool for activism, for learning and for reflection. It can draw together crowds, be a focus for events and make people reassess and think again. An artwork can prove more memorable than a report or media feature. We need the reports and features as well, but art and creativity can help share them. Puppetry becomes symbol.

I’ve experimented with making a simple hand puppet, but this is a world away from that! Little Amal was crafted with great care and skill by the Handspring Puppet Company, which became more widely known through their work for the play War Horse. Moreover, she stands 3.5 metres tall, an eye-catching sight as she moves along.

And she has covered some ground this summer and autumn, nearly 5000 miles in all. Setting out from the border between Syria and Turkey in August, Amal has gone on to cross Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium, finally reaching the UK. Throughout the journey, a diverse programme of events has been organized to publicize the Walk and to reach new audiences and communities and different ages. Many have been outdoor events, like a nature walk at the UNSECO World Heritage Site of Pamukkale in Turkey, famed for its thermal baths.

A range of events has also been planned to welcome Amal to the UK. Once she arrives in Folkestone on 19 October, the Walk will move on to Dover and then to Canterbury for a pilgrim’s welcome at the Cathedral (a traditional place of pilgrimage). Other cathedrals feature when Amal reaches London, where there will be prayers at Westminster Cathedral and an event at St Paul’s – as well as a fairground event in Lewisham and music & d ance at the Globe Theatre. Events will mark Little Amal’s journey northwards through Coventry, Sheffield and Barnsley to Manchester, where the Walk ends. Manchester’s event has the evocative title “When The Birds Land”.

At a time when craftivism is engaging many more people in art and craft for change on different levels, Walk With Amal showcases the power & scope of image & creativity to capture imaginations and to embody a cause.

Would you like to share thoughts on puppetry or on art and craft as activism? Or maybe you plan to attend a Walk With Amal event? It would be great if you’d like to share in Medley’s Facebook group group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Or to learn more about the Walk itself, go to https://www.walkwithamal.org

At The Keys

As Piano Month draws to a close, I’ve been thinking what might be distinct about the piano as an instrument, and why it holds such an important place in many people’s musical memory & imaginations.

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Piano music conjures up so many different moods. It can be joyful, triumphant, fun, playful, lively, wistful, dreamy or contemplative. Pieces like piano concertos by Shostakovich, Rachmaninov or Grieg, or the music of Ludovico Einaudi, contrast with a piece like Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. So people can turn to piano music in different moods and at different times and hear their own emotions and experiences mirrored by the music. One composer can create pieces at opposite ends of the mood spectrum – like Elton John, with songs full of verve alongside songs full of lament. Many lullabies focus on the piano, but so do many dance pieces. It defies genre, dominating classical, jazz, rock and pop alike.

Obviously, other musical instruments can convey different moods as well. The piano’s sheer size has contributed to its position, as has its importance in accompanying solo singers, group singalongs, worship or choirs. Moreover, slightly distinct from the orchestra, piano is striking as a solo instrument, and many piano soloists have become particularly famous, from Franz Liszt – the first superstar musician perhaps – to performers of today like Vikingur Olafsson or Lang Lang.

But in what other ways can piano improve wellbeing?

Playing the piano yourself can be mindful – a way to focus and absorb your mind, even to drive away unwelcome thoughts. The sheer concentration required is helpful for this. Piano practice could be a bind and a duty, but it could also be a haven and a refuge for many people. It can order their thoughts and create a sense of balance and harmony. The piano is also ideal for improvisation, allowing the performer freedom to experiment and play with music and sound, which could be beneficial in a different way.

Improvisation can also help people with dementia, who may have learned to play the piano but may now be unable to follow sheet music or to remember once familiar pieces.

In the 19th century and on to the mid 20th century, many people in the UK owned pianos and played them regularly, with singing around the piano a family tradition. Before the days even of records, let alone CDs or streaming, this brought music into many homes. But pianos have since become an expensive luxury. Far fewer people now own a piano, so that ability to play or to hear live music at home has faded away. This matters, because it excludes lower and middle income households from music’s clear impact on wellbeing. Just as people on lower incomes will be less likely to afford music lessons, so owning a musical instrument has become another barrier to opportunity.

Initiatives opening up piano playing are great – like placing pianos in railway stations, shopping centres or other public places for anyone to sit down and play as they walk by. And more are needed.

Have you found that hearing or playing the piano boosts your wellbeing? It would be great if you’d like to share any thoughts or experiences in Medley’s Facebook group Thank you https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002