Ward Musician – Visit no. 1

Its been light years since I put up a post, but following nudges from Janus and Christopher HERE GOES.

 I have just embarked on a new venture – as a Volunteer at University College London Hospital in the capacity as Ward Musician.   I had been interviewed and assessed over the last few months,  with workshops and induction courses and found to be of sound stock and yet, until Tuesday this week,  not one of my interviewers and assessors had actually heard me play the piano. Isn’t that just amazing?  Perhaps they were so desperate that they simply recognised my interactive charms and that was considered good enough, after all the main thing is to ENGAGE WITH THE PATIENTS.

So this last Tuesday afternoon I travelled from South London up to the Euston Road by public transport with a brand new white keyboard (Yamaha Piaggero NP12) hung over my right shoulder in what I think is called a gig bag. Whatever, its a bloody long bag. One girl in a Starbucks coffee shop asked if I had a body in it. It was damn awkward to carry. I went into the Hospital cafe when I arrived and ordered a tomato soup and a roll but balancing the tray with a bowl of soup AND with a piano hung over my back was definitely not a good idea. Anyway I made it to a table  without spillage. And then, travelling in the lift (up to the Ward) with the piano, almost knocking people over as I turned around to leave the lift. Ah well, no injuries, no fatalities.

I was introduced to the staff and to the Ward Sister called Linda. The Ward was kind of U shape, with various bays running off it, the first two bays had elderly men and the remaining bays all had women. I was told most of the men were stroke victims – a pretty miserable looking lot. But LInda decided I should visit the “girls” first and I was introduced to a nurse with the nickname “‘Dawn Pops” who ran a bay for dementia patients .

As I entered the bay, an elderly woman lying in the first bed called out to me, “Come here” she said. I walked over to her and she said  “Am I awake?” Well this was a good start! I answered “Are you talking to me?” She said yes so I said “Well then you ARE awake.” But it occurred to me later that just because she thought she was talking to me didn’t necessarily prove she was awake for she could have been talking to me in a dream! (I have a lot to learn here about dementia.)

But I was directed to the corner of the bay where an elderly woman, thin and gaunt, lay in bed. She appeared completely out of it. Sitting at the  side of her bed was her nephew, a handsome man in his 60’s who introduced himself as “JP”. Fair enough I thought. He told me his aunt liked all kinds of music, classical and jazz and that he always brings some CD’s along to play to her. But she was motionless, almost frozen looking. I decided to make an attempt to arrest her attention. I lifted up the white keyboard and turned it to face her so she could see all the notes up and down the length of the keyboard. Eureka! She came alive. And slowly and deliberately she said “Wonderful.”

I told her that I was going to play some tunes. She seemed to fix her attention on the tunes and stared at me as I played. I played a tune called “Memories of You” with some nice harmonic changes and I gave the keyboard a few riffs so that the Coordinator of the Volunteers (who was watching) could see I had a bit of magic up my sleeve! . As I played I could see the old lady watching me, and I too was watching her, so the whole thing was kind of shared. She began to talk weakly, “It’s beautiful, beautiful” and she kept repeating this and blowing me kisses. On some of the songs she appeared to me mouthing the words though I could not tell whether they were the words from the song. And when I started to play “Waltzing Matilda” she began to tap her hands together and nod her head and a smile appeared on her lips. She absolutely loved it and I could not have wished for a better start. The nephew was so pleased and happy and the Volunteer Coordinator wrote back to me yesterday to say how lovely it was to see this interchange between patient and visitor! He said “the transformations was incredible.” 

But I had quite different experiences from my next two patients. I introduced myself to Maureen, saying I had come to play for her. But whereas my first patient Anastasia, seemed quite posh and well to do (well her nephew was) this patient was quite the opposite. “What kind of music do you like” I asked her. “A bit of rock and roll” she said and “It would liven this place up a bit”. I laughed. “That’s just three chords innit” I said, trying to make out I was a common South Londoner! I played a sort of rock and roll blues, but I wasn’t exactly playing any tune at all and it was all a bit scrambled. At the end I admitted, “that was rubbish really” and she retorted  “yes it was!”

So I said to Maureen lets have a chat. “You tell me something about you and I’ll tell you something about me.” She told me she lived in North London and was hoping to go home very soon. We had a cosy chat, even mentioning Holloway Prison. I even asked her if she’d been in there! She gave me a derisory look but admitted she knew  several people who had been there! Well I wished her well and hoped that she’d get back home soon.

I crossed the bay with my piano to meet a very elderly patient, clearly ridden with dementia, with her daughter at the side of the bed. The mother looked so frail, she looked absolutely awful, a face of anquish and shock and her skin seemingly stretched over her bones. The pale and thin daughter was just a younger version. There was no way the mother could make any decent conversation so I asked the daughter what her mum might like to hear. “Madness” she said, “Can you do any Madness? For a minute I thought she was asking me to make a noise like hell, to give some sort of musical accompaniment to the expression of horror on her mother’s face (like the Scream painting by Munch). But she continued ..”can you play “Our House” . I had to say I was sorry, for my repertoire was kind of Frank Sinatra stuff and standard ballads. I was put on the spot and was struggling to do anything. I mentioned Music Hall songs like “You are my sunshine” but I opted to play “On the Sunny Side of the Street”. BAD CHOICE.

The mother became increasingly agitated and distraught, asking “Am I in the toilet?” Her daughter and I exchanged glances silently agreeing this was NOT a good time. I beat my retreat and came across a little old lady sitting in a chair beside her bed. “Can you play for me? ” she asked. Ah back on home soil ha ha.

The little lady was well spoken and with a South African accent. Her request was “Goodnight Irene” but this was one I couldn’t play. So I played her a medley of ballads. I sat directly facing her, just a few feet from her and I’m sure she thought she was in the front row of a theatre. She absolutely loved it – “ooh I’m going to tell all my friends someone came to play for me.” I asked her if she knew “A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.” She replied that was one of her favourites songs and she began to tell me a story of long ago when she was a member of the Landsdowne Club in Berkeley Square, Mayfair, standing on the pavement outside the Club and joking with her friends about the song title. As I played the tune, she became very wistful, like being transported back to her Club days in Mayfair. I wondered whether she was rich ha ha. And yes, I guess I was flirting with her. The final song I played to her was “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again SOME SUNNY DAY”. But I invited her to guess the tune, to get her brain ticking nicely – a sort of game between us. But whether it was the jazzy version I was playing or just her memory not working, she couldn’t name the tune and so I began to give her clues like saying “don’t know where, don’t known when” and nodding to her, gesturing her to say the next line, and guess what …IT WORKED. But whether we shall meet again is uncertain as she was expecting to go home.

Well to be frank, that was the best of it. Another woman in bed brushed me away with a flick of her hand “I’ve seen it all ” she said laughing. The next lady was an elderly West Indian woman who made no real response to my presence or playing. I selected the ‘vibraphone’ sound on the keyboard and played “Yellow bird up high in banana tree”. Well it might just as well have been me stuck up high in a banana tree for all the reaction I got, save for a sideways glance at me as if to put me in my place!  And the last woman I spoke to declined my invitation, choosing to watch Emmerdale or some soap on the small TV above her bed. Not to worry  – I said I’d come earlier next week. .

As for next week I shall start with the men. What will I be in for! (And I’m gonna look up some Madness songs!)

15 thoughts on “Ward Musician – Visit no. 1”

  1. Papa, it may be a long time since you have written a post, but it was worth waiting for. A very entertaining piece.
    Old people can be amazing to talk to. I spent a lot of time with my 90 year old parents last year just before they died. My father had dementia but it was great fun to play these mind or memory games with him, for both of us.
    Please report on the men. I bet this will be more difficult as you will surely be told to p*ss off by some of them. My father would have been one of those. 🙂

  2. Hello PapaG. I remember you mentioning a while back in someone else’s post that you were going to be doing this and I replied with a comment about the PAT dogs. Anyway, I am delighted to read your impressions of your first ‘residency’ and I hope both you and the patients find some mutual enjoyment on subsequent visits. You seem to have a natural affinity for this type of work

    Good on yer.


  3. Gazoopi thanks – I’m feel quite able to joke with patients where I can (asking if one had been in Holloway Prison) and I think the keyboard is only a resource if I know the patient wants to hear a tune. I have an Ace up my sleeve which is a bluetooth speaker so can play any tune downloaded from Spotify, bringing Sinatra or Chopin to the bedside. But yes I don’t take myself too seriously; I don’t even have a stand for the keyboard but balance it on my knees! I can’t wait to report the first “P*SS OFF!”

    OZ – yes it was in one of Christopher’s posts and I did make a reply. I’m pretty sure that the PAT dogs are used at this hospital and I will enquire and let you know. There is also a retired magician on the wing (Volunteer, not a patient) but I haven’t met him yet and I don’t know whether he can make things disappear. I would think a lot of patients would find things disappearing without the wave of a magic wand!

  4. Hello Papa – thank you for this post.

    Your description of carrying the keyboard slung over your shoulder reminded me of the images of medieval troubadours – but I don’t expect you wore multi-coloured hose!

    It’s a great idea – and I really admire you for doing this. As I understand it, many, many dementia patients benefit immensely from listening to music.

    In the eight weeks since I got back from the UK, my mother has become incredibly confused. She was forgetful, but certainly not confused when I left. My daughter is in the UK at the moment, and Mum is now in a care-home. I leave for the UK tomorrow – your post is a timely reminder for me to sort out some music for her.

    Mind you – she might be like the mother and daughter – my mother never never did have a very good ear for music!

  5. Good for you, PapaG. I hope you continue to have some successes with your efforts. It must be very comforting for at least some of your audience and those that do not respond may do internally. Who knows?

    BTW, I have got a Piaggero, Good, aren’t they?

  6. Very interesting and very brave of you!
    I just hope you do not come upon many like me, who hates most music. Can others in the ward hear this?
    One of the reasons I carry medical insurance is to get away from others and their noise. A private room can maintain Trappist silence. never forget some idiot cleaning woman coming in and turning my TV on! Plus the nurses kept trying to keep the door propped open somewhat negating the desired silence. Cheeky bitch, got sent off with ears hanging off not just burning. Always preferred to read. I think it comes from growing up in a silent house in the middle of the country for some obscure reason my father didn’t approve of music on the radio. Home service only and what was a TV? None in our household. Books or nothing.Why I like gardening, utter peace and serenity.

    When the boy was in hospice for three months I used to take in a small very soft and silky JR puppy. She used to get passed round the place regularly to many patients who delighted in treating her like a living worry bead. So I can see that if music is your thing your services would be most appreciated. I do feel sorry for those in public wards of the NHS who want peace and quiet though. With one thing and another and too many visitors per bed one might as well be ill in the middle of the high street! Totally insanitary and no wonder so many die of MRSA. Makes me quite ill to even think about it! Just looking at the average UK resident, most are not very clean, most could do with a good scrub with carbolic soap!!

  7. Thinking on about this, (in silence) it occurs to me that NHS hospitals are pretty impersonal places these days, too many nurses with laptops rather than paying patients any real attention as human beings. after all they can’t even be bothered to see that they eat properly. I can see that your personal attention to each bed might be highly appreciated as someone who bothered and cared enough to give them a few minutes of your time. It probably made their day! Good for you.

  8. Good on ya, PapaG. The problem with working in wards is that you see all sorts of things that will make you question everything you thought about life. Even if you “knew” about these things, you didn’t really think about them. At the same time, there are moments of warmth you’d otherwise never have known. Please keep them coming!

  9. Well guys I will try and respond to each of the more recent comments.
    Bo, I have a bluetooth speaker and have the ability to download most music from Spotify (since I pay £10 a month for the privilege). In this way I can collect patients choices a week before and return to play the songs or pieces at the bedside. The clarity of the speaker is bang on. There is one lady last week who wasn’t satisfied with my Rock and Roll and so I will bring her Elvis and “All shook up.” So I recommend the use of a bluetooth speaker and will let you know how I get on as I take the trip to UCL Hospital tomorrow afternoon. My mother and her sister had Alzheimers so I had a bitter taste of it. (By the way I have been offered training in two weeks – a two hour session on Dementia awareness.)

  10. FEEG – the keyboard I have is 61 notes, and something I can bounce around on my knees since I do not use a stand at the moment. Do you have the 76 key version?

  11. CO – In some ways I AM brave but that is because I’m not naturally gifted at music, just kept plugging away at it and making my ears work hard. As for disturbing the peace, I do get you. I do try to play melodic lines and not chomping chords so my playing is a little delicate and the keyboard itself is fairly light weight, not a heavy sound. I do go up to the bedside and introduce myself and ask if they would like me to play. I’m sure I will get quite a few “Piss-off’s” from both men and women, (I’m starting with the men tomorrow) . That wont upset me in any way, in fact I’m quite looking forward to it .I’m just trying this job out to see if I’m any good at it or if I actually like doing it! You mention noise. In younger days, when I was in hospital it was the lights on at night that used to irritate me so. Even one smidgen of light from a distant bulb would p*ss me off. I love the story of the soft puppy toy and I will mention it to my supervisor for it could well work here; why not! One lady I saw last Tuesday was positively oozing with pleasure when I played in front her as she sat at the side of the bed.

  12. PapaG: My keyboard is not so portable as yours. It is an NP31 (76 notes). I use a stand, and while I have a gig bag, tend to keep it in one place.

  13. PapaG – Janus wrote that he was baggaring orf to Blighty to visit family for a while. Backside, it appears, does not have his password for The Chariot, which is a shame really – we could have learned much about them both.


  14. As our esteemed colleague, OZ, says I’ve been back in the green and pleasant land. Backside of course trailed along too, so no chance of leaks from him! On the two occasions I was wardbound aged 15 and 20, I think I would have had limited interest/enjoyment/tolerance of a troubadour. So maybe age and type of ailment may be critical. Well done though, sterling work!

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