Observe and Experience

So far Medley’s blog has focused on music and art, but nature is also integral to Medley’s aims. Mirroring art and music’s impacts, there are also many ways in which connecting with the natural world can help health and wellbeing.

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Striking reflections on connecting with nature come from well-known people and writers in different circumstances: living with Asperger’s, or with depression, or with anxiety and mental health struggles. Dara McAnulty has told of seeking out quiet places where he can concentrate fully on absorbing natural sights and sounds. In his Classic FM interview with Moira Stuart on 27 September, Monty Don spoke about nature’s impact on depression, the gradual new focus it creates and the way you begin to feel part of the natural world’s rhythms and cycles. Joe Harkness has written thoughtfully about the sensory, immersive power of nature, as he describes connecting with the natural world through birdwatching and birdsong.

Lived experience is supported by research. In 2019 researchers in Denmark conducted an evidence review of some 130 studies into woodland’s proven impact on adults in reducing levels of physical and emotional stress alike. In the UK, the University of Derby’s Nature Connectedness Research Group was the first of its kind when it was formed. Its 5 Pathways To Nature Connectedness explore the diverse ways we respond to nature: but are only one part of the Group’s multi-faceted work.

Maybe nature’s impact on us has its main roots in observation. Is it always helpful simply to ‘be’ in nature? Do we have an instinct to plant, to clear, to make an active contribution? Sometimes I like simply to sit or stand or walk. At other times I want to respond, to interact with what I see. Either I feel photography or drawing will defy time. Or I want to feel part of nature’s wonder.

One important focus here (which I want to explore more as Medley grows) is the way nature and the arts can work together. Nature can feed music and art, while creativity can add new layers to the way we respond to nature. Music heard, sung or played outdoors can be more powerful. Differing acoustics in diverse open-air settings can create a new perspective. It can also highlight the narrow line which divides natural sounds (biophony), like whale calls or birdsong, from music. Art can deepen our response to nature as well. I know that when I spend time drawing or painting plants or wildlife, I become more observant. If I then go for a walk, I find myself focusing on a tree’s shape or form, on the shade cast by a hedge or on the colour and gleam of ivy or laurel. I only paint birds from photographs (obviously more practical) but still notice that I look differently at the birds in my garden, at the angle of a woodpecker’s head as it feeds, or the flick and dart of a house sparrow.

Observation in itself becomes a form of interaction, so if I observe more closely, I connect more with what I see. Three of the University of Derby Nature Connectedness Research Group’s 5 Pathways (Senses, Emotion and Beauty) are specifically observational. Experiencing nature through observation is integral to any full experience of nature, even if it also involves practical tasks or activities. Observation might seem very visual, but can cover any sense. People with sight loss might observe through sound or touch. All time spent in nature can stimulate the senses in different ways. The Sensory Trust runs Creative Spaces for people with dementia and Sensory Nature Adventures and Play for children with disabilities and their families.

Maybe there are as many different ways to experience the natural world as there are different places, ecosystems and species to explore. For some, that experience may involve art, music or other art forms. For all, observation itself could become a way to respond.

Care To Create

You might think that during long months of lockdown, arts activities would have ground to a halt in care homes of all places. You would be wrong.

In a year when so much media coverage of care homes has focused on delays in coronavirus testing and scarcity of PPE, it is more important than ever that people mark the National Day of Arts In Care Homes. It is an opportunity to celebrate the many imaginative, creative ways in which care homes and other organisations have gone on drawing on the arts to brighten residents’ lives throughout the pandemic.

This year’s theme is #CreativeCommunities, and connection is all.

Barriers thrown up be closing many care homes to visitors proved little barrier to so many organisations. Technology has allowed many care homes to continue to connect with the arts. The Smiling Sessions, which began sharing music with care home residents ten years ago, is one organisation to have drawn on technology’s power. They have just launched the second series of their Smiling Remotely Singalongs, this time featuring special guest KT Tunstall.

Nor has technology proved the only solution. Many care homes have run art and craft activities within the home, with residents making flags or bunting to mark this year’s VE Day commemorations.

In some ways, care homes have become a more viable focus for creativity than other settings. While so many support groups, choirs or painting classes have closed for the foreseeable future, care homes find themselves in a very different position. Where support groups have halted because people are unable to gather to paint or sing, care home residents already live in a communal group environment. Some community groups have moved online, but this has not always proved possible, and their closure has left a gaping hole in many participants’ lives. Another side of the wider picture.

Many people who perhaps never gave life in a care home a second thought before Covid-19 struck, have now begun to imagine and to understand. It is a happy irony that it is at a time when care homes have become more insular than ever, that people have opened their minds to try to reach out.

As care homes continue to battle the invisible threat posed by coronavirus and as winter nears, the National Day of Arts In Care Homes shines a light on residents’ everyday lives and everyday needs. It highlights music and other art forms as a tool to build connections: to enable residents to relate to each other and to the wider world. When two thirds of care home residents live with a dementia diagnosis, relating to other people through art, music or other creativity may be easier than communicating verbally.

So let’s celebrate and recognize all the #CreativeCommunities across the country for their perseverance and commitment.

In Unison

As we adjust to Covid-19 for the long haul, uncertainties has become one of few certainties. And uncertainty over communal music-making at this time throws up questions on music’s impact on wellbeing. Is it the music itself which helps or the opportunities it creates to interact with others? Is hearing or performing music alone equally beneficial as gathering with others to listen or to play?

On the one hand, the BBC Proms’ return to live concerts for their last fortnight signalled progress. But on the other hand, hearing the Last Night of the Proms play from a near-deserted Royal Albert Hall highlighted how slow that progress has to be. Gone was the festive atmosphere, full of life and barely-suppressed excitement. Instead, conductors and musicians spoke (on the BBC Radio 3 broadcast) of their yearning to see audiences return.

I still remember Sakari Oramo’s speech as conductor at the 2019 Last Night of the Proms, in which he talked about the power of live music as demonstrated by the crowds which turn out for the event year upon year. He would little have imagined then that his successor this year, Dalia Stasevska, would conduct behind closed doors.

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Music still has an undoubted impact, as proven by the way people have engaged with music online throughout the pandemic, with initiatives drawing on new participants all the time. Virtual music-making may be different, but clearly it is still needed. Do these initiatives prove most helpful when they are interactive? Responses to music (like clapping or dancing) can help wellbeing: autistic children and young people can find this liberating. Do people respond more like this in a group, or might they feel more free to respond alone?

I know people’s motivations differ when they attend music, art or nature groups. For many, the priority is creativity or nature connection. For others, the focus is on shared experience and a feeling of community. And obviously the two may interweave. One aim of specific music therapy across different circumstances (from autism to dementia and mental health to name but three) is to enable people to express themselves and to communicate more easily. This makes interacting through music integral. Singing and music-making to improve aphasia following a stroke may also be communal. The groundbreaking El Sistema has spawned group music-making across the UK for children and young people who might have few other opportunities to play. From Sistema and The Big Noise to In Harmony, these initiatives draw young people together across a community. They are intrinsically communal.

Then came coronavirus, creating new barriers. Barriers which cast into focus the point where music as medicine and music as community meet. How differently do we respond to music alone or with others? Is singing more dependent on community than playing an instrument would be? How are participatory groups and choirs to weave together different needs? Maybe you could share thoughts, responses or experiences on the Medley forum at https://medley.forumotion.com ? The absence of community could become an opportunity to learn more about music’s diverse impacts on us all.

Rekindle Memory

Time and time again I hear how music, art or nature resonate with people who have dementia, opening up worlds which seemed closed. Dementia may have been overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has once again delayed proposed care reforms. But it has not gone away. Instead it has gone on spiralling.

Next week, 21st September marks #WorldAlzheimersDay. While Alzheimer’s disease is only one form of dementia (a group of over 100 illnesses), it is maybe the most widely known. It was first fully described by Alois Alzheimer in 1907, over a century ago.

Every year World Alzheimer’s Day has a different theme, and this year’s theme is stigma. Awareness of dementia may be growing but stigma still surrounds these diseases. People diagnosed with dementia may struggle with shame while people around them may struggle to interact with them as they used to do. Sharing music, art and nature within communities creates common ground which helps people with dementia and people without dementia to relate to one another: this could be one way to reduce stigma. As people spend time together and share experiences where dementia is less of a barrier, stigma loses its power to isolate those living with a dementia diagnosis. And as dementia progresses and someone’s cognition declines so that conversation becomes difficult or impossible, music, nature or art could become a way to connect.

Crucial to reaching people who have dementia through music is the memory bump. Research has found that people are most likely to remember and respond to music they first heard during their memory bump years – from their teens to early thirties. So trying to reawaken failing memory through songs and music needs to reflect age and generation. I was talking with someone recently who was saying that they hope they won’t have to sing wartime songs when they move into a care home: this is someone born in the early 60s, who likes 80s music.

Dementia forces people to live in the moment more than ever before. Memories of the past may become confused and the future is unknown, but you might still respond to the present moment. Connecting with nature is all about living in the moment for any of us, as so many encounters with wildlife are fleeting: a glimpse of a bird darting by, or a moth in lamplight.

Painting might allow someone who has dementia to express themselves as spoken language deteriorates. Even just watching, helping, using colours, could prove worthwhile. What is possible will depend on the rate at which the dementia progresses or the person’s existing experience of music or art. Some people are still able to play an instrument they learned years earlier.

So this #WorldAlzheimersDay could be an opportunity to rekindle memory through music or to interact through art or nature, and lessen the stigma of living with dementia. Could you share your ideas or experiences on the Medley forum? Just go to https://medley.forumotion.com Thank you.

Lockdown’s Long Shadow?

At a time when the digital world was fast growing, lockdown has only accelerated its part in our lives. But lockdown has also highlighted the importance of real-life, face to face interaction and the need for live music, art groups and events and time spent outdoors in nature. When concert halls fall silent, art groups have to be suspended and we have little or no freedom to go outside, we come to see all that we stand to lose.

Where lockdown closed doors, virtual, online initiatives held them ajar. They have created new opportunities as well as allowing existing groups to observe restrictions on movement and contact. When so many music, nature and art initiatives for health and wellbeing are built around connection, moving that connection online proved the most likely alternative.

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Some will see or remember lockdown as a dark time of loneliness, loss of support, blank fear. Some see or remember it as a time of freedom, breathing space to be themselves. For some there was darkness as well as light, light as well as darkness.

Time away from work or other commitments became, for many, an opportunity for art, for nature, for music. Was this just a way to spend time or has it signalled an instinctive awareness of nature, music and art’s power to help? And will it prove more lasting?

So is connecting online through virtual music, art or nature initiatives any less helpful than would be face to face, real-life initiatives? Or does it have its own strengths in opening up projects to reach more people or in allowing people to explore and experiment with less commitment? Maybe experiences differ across the three areas. Gathering to sing or play and hear live music is so integral to music-making that music may depend on face-to-face interaction more than art would. But then again, techniques may be more easily shared during an art session in a group rather than online. Virtual experiences of nature could open up new, deeper and less fleeting sightings, maybe through macro insect photography.

And online communities free us all from barriers of geography and distance, which I for one find so very helpful.

Looking ahead, will virtual initiatives run on in to the future, or will we return to a more local focus on face-to-face sessions? Local groups bind communities together, while online groups may build new communities, either local or drawn from a wider area. Maybe the two can co-exist and evolve together, side by side. Lockdown leaves a long shadow and more questions than answers. But it also leaves freedom and scope to re-imagine new ways to connect through music, art and nature alike.