Arts in Trust – Cheltenham General Hospital

Yesterday I spent the day shadowing  a musician working as part of the Arts in Trust programme in Cheltenham General Hospital.

I felt a little apCheltenham_General_Hospitalprehensive about the day, as I have been blessed not to have spent a great deal of time in hospital – in fact, the last time I was in hospital for reasons relating to my own health was in my early teens to sort out a fractured finger bone. I have never spent a night in hospital.

After walking through the corridors, looking at the photographic exhibition ‘Air’ created by a local artist, we met with Peter outisde the oncology unit. He had brought minimal kit with him – keyboard, stand, stool and extension lead.

As an observer I felt in the way, and as though I was invading the patients’ privacy, which I was in as much as going into hospital can be incredibly disempowering as you hand over control to your body, and with it your dignity. I think it is interesting that the NHS is organised in ‘Trusts’ as we have often no option but to trust our doctors, nurses and other care staff.

Trying to be discreet was difficult – but I endeavoured to follow the advice of my friend, a nurse who said ‘try not to be embarassed’.

The stroke and rehab department was a wonderful place; light, airy (good air-con) and spacious. Each bay had 4 beds but in a larger space than the oncology ward bays which held 6 beds. A new photographic exhibition was up around the ward, showing pictures of local parks. It was created in conjunction with the physiotherapists to incorporate ‘rest stops’ symbolised by pictures of park benches, every 4-5 metres.

The experience of being in a hospital was an education in itself – getting used to the different sounds, the smells (not always good), and seeing the way in which medical staff work. One of the things that surprised me was how natural it seemed, seeing a musician tucked into the back of a bay – Peter had previously said at the training day that he wanted to blend into the environment, and I think he did that amazingly well – the choice of repertoire certainly helped (a choice of gentle jazz pieces, with continuous flow between different numbers).

Peoples’ responses were mixed but generally positive. Some people applauded, requested particular songs or styles, and nodded/tapped along, sang (or tried to) and thanked Peter at the end. One woman said “you have fed my soul”. On the other hand, some people appeared to ignore what was going on, and in one bay as we walked in, a woman said ‘no, thank you, not interested’ etc – and although others said they wanted to try perhaps just one song, another woman got out of bed to ask us to leave after a few minutes of music. Not so good. This certainly raised questions for me about the ideas of consultation and consent. As I’ve already mentioned, the loss of control on entering hospital is so great, that I wonder if part of the reason for objecting to the music was a desire to exercise control over the environment, especially as there is so much activity and noise in the mornings on a ward, it must be good to finally get some quiet later on in the morning. Do you really want another group of strangers wandering in?

I was sceptical about these concerts when I first heard about them. Will sick people want to be disturbed? Won’t the musician get in the way of important medical procedures? If it’s not participatory will they make any difference?

A few examples of why music on the wards is positive:

1. I saw a man smile and nod along for the duration of the concert in his bay, about 20 minutes

2. The staff appreciated the music, and it became a talking point between staff and patients on the wards

3. A man on the stroke and rehab ward was attempting to sing along – potentially a rehab intervention?

I am really hoping in the future to go and perform for a day in hospital. Certainly it will be the most honest audience I’m ever likely to come across.

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