Changing lives by building life-giving connections through music

Ros Hawley playing clarinet to, for and with, baby Oliver.

Ros Hawley playing clarinet to, for and with, baby Oliver.

This blog is a reflection on the Songbirds music and health project that took place in Manchester, as part of a series of contributions from medical, musical and play practitioners. This project uses the starting point of a bird who has flown into a window and broken its wing as a way of reaching out to critically ill children to invite them to use the birds journey towards healing as a way of understanding and discovering their own.

My experience with musicians, Ros Hawley and Mark Fisher, in ward 83 at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital was profound to say the least. My immediate observation watching the musicians continue their long term project in the ward, in which they had played for three years, was of how attuned they were to the children in the ward. This is a ward primarily supporting children with critical conditions, complex medical needs, and little or no verbal expression because of the medical intervention requiring tracheostomies which allow them to breathe but prevent them from speaking.

Ros and Mark, both highly trained musicians, took a selfless approach of putting their expertise as professional musicians behind the interests of each child. They absolutely understood that, if they were to see any kind of depth of impact and use their music for healing, they had to build an authentic relationship and get to know each child. The connections made enabled them to build trust between them that caused an expressive, open and honest musical conversation where they would follow the interests of each child, using music to uplift them and enabling the child to feel nurtured and valued in that space.

Ros Hawley, Mark Fisher and Oliver with consultants and nursing staff.

Ros Hawley, Mark Fisher and Oliver with consultants and nursing staff.

This approach was recognised in the independent evaluation conducted by a team from The Salford School of Nursing and Midwifery (Nov 2016); ‘'Music-making on the Songbirds project engenders hope, enabling parents and staff to glimpse the authentic child, with parents reporting that they sometimes glimpsed their child as they were before illness or injury, or that they glimpsed who their child was or could become.'

This attuned, authentic connection is so crucial in a situation where a baby or young child’s brain is growing at an exponential rate in the first three years of their life, before the natural pruning stage that removes any synapses that are weak and underused, including those that may be predisposed to musicality or communication. This pruning stage continues until early pubescence, after which point the brain is largely the shape it will be for the lifetime of that person, with or without the synapses required to enable important neural connections for life and learning. This is why it is so important to expose a young child to as many high quality creative experiences as possible, in order to strengthen the synapses that will be highly treasured later on in life, unbeknownst to that three year old at the time.

This is exactly what Ros and Mark were doing – consciously or unconsciously – helping young children make vital connections in their brains and bodies. This includes connections on a cognitive/social level in discovering their identities, expressing who they are in this clinical, often unstimulating environment, and discovering what they love and value in a way that they are not able to articulate through words.

Ros responds to a child's musical lead from her cot

Ros responds to a child's musical lead from her cot

For the children with life shortening illnesses, their world is limited to the four walls of the ward, and yet their social communications are constant through eye movement, body language, gesture and noise. They are also making connections on a physical/biological level – some being able to move their arms, legs, eyes, heads, fingers and toes with the music, and others who are being stimulated to stretch out and see how each part of their body works when musically motivated. Finally, they are making connections on a creative level in being able to make their own music and create something entirely unique, shaped by their emotional, physical and spiritual response at the time.

Ros and Mark have helped these children make connections on a sensory level, being able to reach out and touch, hold, feel the vibrations and manipulate an instrument, enabling them to have a voice and express their inner emotions whether of joy, excitement, curiosity, pain or satisfaction. They helped make connections on emotional and spiritual levels, which are important as the musical conversations enable children to release their innermost thoughts, feelings and responses. Not only is this approach enabling very young children to gain a vital sense of mastery and control in an environment where almost everything is done for – or to – them, but there is also an unspoken, shared understanding of the life-giving force of the music they make together. You only have to watch their faces change throughout the musical session from expressions of pain to expressions of curiosity, joy and satisfaction to realise how deep a level this works on.

One mum of a girl with a serious brain disorder called holoprosenephaly (in which the brain fails to develop into two hemispheres) said of her daughter’s participation in the project, Lydia loves life and music is a big part of that. I don’t know how long we’ve got her for but at least when her time comes, we can say we gave her the best possible life.’

Lydia (on screen) and her Mum sharing the impacts of Ros and Mark's music on her daughter's life at the 2016 Wingbeats Conference.

Lydia (on screen) and her Mum sharing the impacts of Ros and Mark's music on her daughter's life at the 2016 Wingbeats Conference.

Even the consultants have commented that some of their children’s vital signs have improved since undertaking these sessions. So much so, that when they enter the ward to examine their very sick children, they respectfully wait until a child’s music session has finished before intervening – quite the reverse of how things were when the musicians began their work on ward 83.

My experience of this project has been a moving and thought-provoking one. You can read more about the work of Songbirds and Lime Music For Health here. Similar significantly positive results are emerging from musical interventions with children in Great Ormond Street Hospital through GOSH Arts and Pulse Arts, to name but a few.

Written by Ruth Churchill Dower, Earlyarts Director, Oct 2017.

Web links:

Forthcoming article:

Hawley, R. (2018), ‘Listen to a Songbird Sing: Musicians, Creativity and the Paediatric Hospital Setting’, International Journal of Community Music, 11:1, pp. 7–20, doi: 10.1386/ijcm.11.1.7_1


Kate Catling, LIME - Music for Health Project Manager: (part-time on Wednesdays and Thursdays).

All images shown with kind permission from LIME Arts