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!)