Good Mood Guitar

Guitar Day falls on 11 February each year, an opportunity to highlight guitar’s huge contribution to music of all kinds. For while guitars might most immediately conjure up pop or rock, there’s great diversity in guitar music, and this sheer diversity gives guitar real scope to boost wellbeing.

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Not only is there acoustic as opposed to rock guitar, but there’s also classical, jazz, baroque, bass and folk to name but some. When this six-stringed musical instrument was developed some 8oo years ago, in the 13th century, its inventors little knew what they were letting loose!

When there’s guitar music for every taste, most people will respond to hearing (or playing) guitar. It’s a great instrument to sing along to, and hearing someone in the street playing and singing immediately lifts the mood so that an everyday scene comes to life. I’ve reflected before in this blog how different music genres have such distinct impacts on mood and wellbeing. To some, rock guitar might be too loud, overwhelming and oppressive. But they might enjoy quieter guitar music, maybe folk songs or classical guitar. Other people could find these dreary or depressing, but feel motivated and uplifted by rock guitar. So there’s guitar music to lift mood, to get you dancing, to make you feel bright and more alert, but also to calm and relax you or to express sadness or other feelings.

If you think of the names of some famous guitarists, they only confirm how diverse this instrument can be: Hendrix, Segovia, Clapton, Karadaglic…In what other list would rock legends and classical musicians sit side by side? Bands like Led Zeppelin and U2 owe so much to the guitar, but so do genres like reggae.

To mark Guitar Day, try listening to different genres of guitar music on You Tube or as you stream music, and think about the different impacts it has on you. Classical guitar can be quite mesmeric to listen to, calming, absorbing and slow in the work of a composer like Rodrigo. Another genre where guitar can be important is folk, where it can be heard alone or accompanying countless folk songs. Here it can have power to unite people to listen and maybe sing along, and to express thoughts and feelings and memory.

Guitar’s importance in three particular dance traditions also demonstrates just how life-enhancing it can be. Try watching videos of these dance forms onlne: flamenco, salsa and tango. Flamenco’s rhythm and beat are built on its unique guitar style as it draws together music, dance and song. The guitar’s also central to salsa: in Cuba, the combination of Spanish guitar and African drumming – and now many other instruments as well – created salsa, another fast & intense dance form. And guitar’s integral to tango, where it weaves together with violin, double bass, piano and concertina to form tango orchestras, producing music and dance whirling with life.

Guitar can sound simple, but this hides real scope and complexity. No wonder then that guitar music has become an endless treasure trove of sound to uplift us all in so many different ways.

What do you think of guitar music? It would be great if you would like to share in Medley’s Facebook group Thank you!

Indoors And Out

All the time I hear of great ways care home staff engage residents with nature and the outdoors. One was a song trail around a care home garden, with song titles chalked on the ground at various points to encourage people to spend time outside following the trail. Many homes have bird tables or window feeders so residents can enjoy watching birds at close hand. Some have visits from therapy animals or miniature ponies. And so many use brilliant art and craft ideas inspired by nature, some using found natural materials.

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Even opening windows so residents can feel fresh air, on mild days, is a stimulus. For a 2009 study by the Care Commission and Mental Welfare C ommission found that half of all care home residents with dementia never go outside. This is understandable: dementia can make people fearful of going outdoors, of any change from the familiar. Many will also have mobility issues, making it difficult to go out. Some people with dementia struggle with motivation or become withdrawn. There are also health and safety issues to consider. However, any opportunity to go outside sometimes or to experience nature in other ways would obviously be positive for many residents.

It’s become well known that trees calm people. Even looking at photos or pictures of trees has been found to speed recovery from illness or surgery, which is worth knowing for people who may be unable to spend time actually amidst trees. Tree photos on care home walls could create a calming setting. Growing houseplants inside the home could also link residents to nature.

Without thinking, we usually experience nature through all our senses some of the time – seeing a view, hearing wind rustle or rain fall, smelling cut grass, even touching garden plants or tasting homegrown salad. Even a small outdoor space can become a sensory garden, with wind chimes, a simple water feature, solar lights and plants chosen for their scent and the sound they make. But people can also experience nature across the senses while indoors. Scented houseplants or listening to audio and video clips of birdsong and other natural sounds could help.

People who have dementia but live independently may be even less likely to get outside, particularly if they live alone. Loss of confidence can strand them indoors, and they may have no garden at all.

The Netherlands is one country which has led the way in enabling people with dementia to connect with nature through care farming. This is day care with a difference, where people help with tasks on the farm as their dementia and mobility allow, or simply enjoy the setting. Care farming is also now growing in the UK, but particularly for people with mental health issues, many of whom are younger people, rather than with adementia focus. This could open up many new possibilities to complement day care, and move it outside.

Obviously some people like being indoors, and would find the setting of a care farm unfamiliar and distressing. But across a wide spectrum of older people with dementia, connecting with nature more regularly could really enhance life. Do you have thoughts to share? It would be great to hear any responses in Medley’s Facebook group Thank you!

Over the Rainbow

Colour transforms. I enjoy drawing in black and white, but when I paint in colour or add colour to a drawing, it comes to life in a new way. It’s all about spectrums and how we see light. Why then do we respond strongly to particular colours? What is colour theory and how can it express how we feel, or improve wellbeing?

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Colour theory covers diverse thinking about the use of colour, from primary and secondary colours to which colours may be seen as warm or cool. Many of these ideas developed during the 17th century and have been a focus for art and design ever since. But there’s also another side to this: colour psychology, linking emotions and colours. Many of us would agree, for example, that grey can be a depressing colour, or that blue is refreshing, but colour psychology explores why and how colours have these impacts.

I know I respond more to bright colours in winter. I find myself wantingt o paint or draw using bright colours, as a counterbalance to dark and overcast days.

Colour symbolism has its roots in associations. For example, many of us associate blue with sea and sky, or yellow with sunshine – so these can seem positive, soothing colours. But colours also develop negative associations – “the blues” has become a term for depression, and we say someone “sees red” if they lose their temper. So associations can vary. Red is a strong, powerful colour – but is also the colour of a poppy, symbol of fragility and of wartime remembrance.

Colours have even been found to create physical responses in people. Red can speed metabolism and breathing rates and boost circulation. Maybe as a bold colour, it can embolden us in turn.

Combining colours together also has its own impact. Colours near to each other on the spectrum, like red and purple, can be more restful because they look alike. Combining colours from opposite ends of the spectrum on the other hand, like red and green, is more striking because of the contrast. So in artwork, contrasting colours add drama.

Then there are warm and cool colours – warm colours (like red) are stimulating, energizing and exciting, dominating the scene, while cool colours (like blue) are tranquil and calming, and easily overshadowed.

And there are all different ways we could surround ourselves with different colours to boost wellbeing. You could decorate one room in pale blue to calm you, or you could add a burst of colour to a dark or neutral room with a colourful throw or ornament. Spend some time on dark, overcast days doing some craft using all colours of the rainbow, or colouring a vivid scene. If you feel anxious, look at a blue sky. Go on a colour walk focusing on how many colours you see – even on a winter walk there’ll be more different shades and hues of colour than you might think. You could experiment with planting different colour combinations in your garden or windowbox. And you could think about using colour to express or work through feelings – think what colour you might use to represent how you feel about a particular issue.

It would be great to hear any responses in Medley’s Facebook group – what impact do colours have on you? Thank you!

Generation Sound

By disrupting schooling, Covid 19 highlighted a surge in mental health issues among children and young people – but this has been growing for some time, before the pandemic began, for many different reasons. So I’ve been thinking about ways children interact with music, and how this could help – or hinder. Music is such a positive in most people’s lives at all ages, and has a strong impact on elderly people, particularly those with dementia. So what about the younger generation?

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Twenty-first century life is rarely silent. Most children and young people grow up surrounded by sound, as they watch children’s TV and spend time online from a very young age. Many spend hours video gaming, to the constant backdrop of game soundtracks. As they grow up and stream music, it remains ever-present in their lives. It strikes me that children a generation or further ago experienced far more silence than they would today. It may well be that being exposed to so much sound is a great stimulus as their brains develop. But it may also be that they could benefit from learning to enjoy silence as well, as a space to think or to use imagination and creativity. An endless blizzard of sound can limit children’s need to entertain themselves.

However, when music is known to be so beneficial for wellbeing, it must be largely positive that it is so ubiquitous in children’s lives today. The vast array of music young people can stream on demand allows them to explore a wider range of music to see what makes them feel good. The use of classical music in video game soundtracks is introducing new generations to classical music, which they might have thought was not for them but which can calm them or lift their mood.

One irony is that children are so surrounded by music at a time when music education in schools is in many cases threatened or declining. So participatory music-making is less likely, when this is one of the most beneficial ways to experience music. Instead, many children’s enjoyment of music is passive rather than active.

Specific music therapy can be helpful to children and young people in particular situations. One such is selective mutism, an anxiety disorder mainly seen in children, who may talk to some people but not to others. It can be quite severe, and has different posible causes, such as anxiety over a change in the child’s life like starting a new school. Music therapy has been found to improve communication for many selectively mute children. It can help by easing the anxiety at the root of the mutism and by boosting confidence. Singing can help as an alternative way to communicate, so that communicating loses some of its negativity. And of course there are other situations where music therapy can also help, such as with children with SEN or learning disabilities, or wjo live with sight loss.

And away from specific therapy, it may be that music and song can and will help many of the children and young people who have developed anxiety during the pandemic or who have other mental health issues. Maybe listening to calming music at bedtime could reduce insomnia and fear, for example. With so much music in everyday life, there’s lots of scope to harness this for good.

Do you have any ideas to share? It would be great to hear any responses in Medley’s Facebook group Thank you!

Going Wild

People all turn to nature in different ways and will respond differently. But one common thread running through nature’s impact on wellbeing is the otherness of nature – how it becomes an opportunity to stand back from our own experiences, thoughts and needs, and to see differently.

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My last nature-themed blog post focused on a particular book as a way of going on connecting with nature during winter. That was about travel to Antarctica – the first book I’mm thinking about today is on whales. It is Philip Hoare’s “Leviathan or, The Whale”. It’s got me thinking how immersing yourself in the life of another species can be a way to absorb your mind and to gain a new perspective.

Nature moves at a slower pace, and other species’ lives may seem simpler than our own, but they can be far more complex than we think or know. Philip Hoare calls whales far more ‘other’ than any other species, because of their vast size and scale. Whale watching he finds awe-inspiring, envying the whales’ freedom and ocean life. Later he dives and swims with whales, an experience which transfixes him. The book also explores the dark side of human interaction with whales in the long history of whaling, and Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick os integral to Hoare’s writing.

Clearly it is true, as Philip Hoare says, that the whale is in a class all its own. But few of us will ever see or swim with whales in the wild. Encounters with more local species may be less dramatic but still have a strong impact on us, as we glimpse what it is to be another creature Megafauna may mystify and excite us, but so can all wildlife.

In his book Beauty and The Beast, Hugh Warwick met about a dozen people who have all become closely connected with one particular wildlife species. Some are scientists, others enthusiasts, even obsessives. All spend considerable time searching out “their” species to learn, observe and understand. Some species, like sparrows and robins, were easier to find; others, like otters, bats and moths, required patience, dedication and good weather. Several of the people shared how “their” species gave a sense of purpose to their lives and helped them through struggles and difficult times of their own.

Maybe it’s this focus on a particular species which is important. That way you can delve deeper, learn more, maybe record what you see for a body like the UK Biological Records Centre. A deeper awareness would help you immerse yourself in that species’ wider habitat and see how it interacts with other species. Think of one species you might try to observe more closely, maybe a local species you can find easily, or maybe a far away species you might never see in the wild. Technology has brought wildlife far closer to us. Thinking of whales, try listening to whale song today, or search online for underwater photos of whales. Sound and image too open up new worlds to enhance our lives.

Empathy, awe and wonder – or simply living in the moment as a bird takes off in flight, or a dragonfly hovers. Seeing life through another species’ eyes – which species will you focus on? It would be great to hear any responses in Medley’s Facebook group Thank you!

Think Art

As I think about how art can help mental health and wellbeing, two distinct ways emerge. One way sees creativity as a positive to focus on, as refuge or haven, space away from the everyday and from specific issues. The other uses creativity directly to address and work through those issues, to express thoughts, feelings, emotions or trauma. Which is more beneficial? Is expressing specific responses more helpful? Or can art as refuge prove equally therapeutic in the long run?

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Tool or refuge, art’s impact can be striking, which is why I’ve just set up a new online group, Think Art, where people can experiment with art and craft and explore how it might help mental health. It’s a Facebook group, simply because they are familiar and flexible, and people can join and share. While recognizing that not everyone likes Facebook, I don’t know of any other truly comparable group spaces.

I hope that this new group will attract people totally new to art, as well as those who have drawn or painted for years, or indeed who work in art therapy or arts for wellbeing. With those new to art and craft, it might just open a door to new opportunities and ways of boosting wellbeing.

Within each of the two “pathways”, if you like, there are obviously so many different ideas and possibilities. Using art as refuge, you might enjoy painting or drawing from nature, an opportunity to connect also to the natural world which is known to calm and ground many people. Or you might enjoy creating patterns, crafting, colouring or upcycling, losing yourself in endless possibilities. Using art as tool, you might use colours to express emotions. You might use journaling, like bullet journaling which many now find useful for mental health and which can feature art as people illustrate their journals. Or maybe you have a mental picture of your fears or depression – maybe clear, maybe vague – which it could be helpful to draw out and work with. Art can become a language to express what we might struggle to say in words.

Maybe combining the two is the most helpful. People may find they turn to different ways at different times. When art has such power to help, why limit yourself to one way or the other? See art as experiment.

When I was ill with anxiety some years ago, my concentration and focus just drained away – and this can really hinder people turning to art. If you can’t concentrate on anything other than the issues you’re struggling with, then using art directly to express those issues might be more viale and also more constructive.

Nevertheless, focusing on these issues can be triggering in itself – for example, some people might find that bullet journaling only makes them dwell more on their feelings so that they feel all the more overwhelmed. For others, expressing emotions they may have struggled with or suppressed for years could be liberating, when ignoring them would have left them lingering in the shadows. But it could also require support, maybe through specific art therapy.

So much depends on the causes – a present situation, memories of trauma, or less specific sadness or fear.

It would be great if you’d like to join the new Think Art group – – and tell others about it, and experiment with creativity to explore these questions and more. Thank you.

Light And Shade

The more I share and learn and experiment with art for wellbeing, the more different impacts I see and experience. Art can be therapy for all different issues, some long-running or severe, others more everyday.

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Many of us struggle with the long hours of darkness in early and mid winter, the days when it barely seems to come light at all only to fade to dusk again so soon. Cloudy and overcast weather, rain and storms make this even worse. If snow falls and settles, what always strikes me is the monochrome of a snowy scene, all white and somehow oppressive. When snow finally clears and retreats, it’s great to see once again the different shades of grass, trees, roads. But even with no snow, winter views can look so lifeless and colourless.

Art and craft are all the more beneficial at this time, in different ways. They shine light and colour into our lives when we most need them. Painting or drawing using bright colours is so welcome on a dark day. Crafting using varied, colourful fabrics or other materials is another mental stimulus. Some people make and decorate colourful candles or lanterns in winter, lighting the darkness. Moreover, most of us have to spend more time inside in winter, when it is too dark or cold to linger outdoors. If people find time drags, then creative “pastimes” like art and craft could help give purpose and focus. The more we surround ourselves with light and colour, the more we find a refuge from the shadows of winter.

Colour theory explores how and why we respond to and use colours in particular ways, and highlights the importance of colour to lift mood or to express ourselves. I hope to look at this specifically in a future blog post. Winter may be the time when colour has the most impact on us.

Christmas itself is traditionally a time when many people enjoy creativity. Making cards, decorating trees, making a Nativity scene or an Advent calendar…Even gift wrapping presents can become an artform as people use their imagination to wrap with different papers, maybe printing their own patterned papers or using tissue paper, ribbons and tags. All these can be mindful activities, absorbing people’s thoughts to focus on creativity. Gathering found material outside, maybe holly or ivy, then crafting them into a wreath and decorating it with ribbons or other embellishments can be a way to connect with nature, further helping wellbeing. It’s also a way that people have traditionally brought nature indoors in winter, with fir trees and arrangements of foliage or cones or poinsettia plants linking us to the outdoors.

Some people feel that boosting wellbeing through art or other activities is only a distraction, doing little to work through the causes of mental health issues or low mood. This may depend on those causes, but even in that way it can help as a haven and refuge, an opportunity to recharge by focusing on something positive. In the long run, it can address the root causes as well, and used as a form of therapy, it can allow self-expression. Art’s impact is as diverse as the needs and issues we all have.

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 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 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 Thank you!