Music’s path to health and wellbeing during COVID

Image via Unsplash by Scarlet Ellis

With issues of mental health and wellbeing becoming increasingly prominent while the pandemic lasts, a central question for music is how it can play a positive role in helping to bring about positive changes in people’s lives. In July, an international panel entitled ‘Music, Wellbeing & COVID-19: How Can Music Contribute to Our Health?’ was convened by the Spanish strategic consultancy Sound Diplomacy through its Music Cities Events initiative, which works towards enhancing music’s place in the urban environment.

It tackled many issues by looking at successful programs worldwide that might hold keys to helping with COVID-19. They included how disadvantaged children and young people are being assisted through music in India, music therapy programs in Hungary, and programs in New Zealand that are helping people who are facing hardship and illness.

One of the panel speakers was Dr Linda Lorenza, lecturer in CQUniversity’s School of Education and the Arts, and whose Jail Guitar Doors program in Sydney we featured in an earlier Music Australia story. She spoke about this highly promising program, and here she expands further on her ideas about the value of participatory music in community settings and how this builds self-esteem and positive social relationships.

Firstly, what did the other speakers talk about on the panel, and what came out of the event?

“Faith Gonsalves (Founder of Music Basti, India) spoke about her interesting work in India on engaging disadvantaged children and young people who live in villages and small communities, and what bringing people together through music means for them. She spoke about the complex problems that arise amid the pandemic from their geographical spread and social density, and how they are trying hard to persist with music activities where they can.

The work that László Puczkó is doing in Hungary is remarkable because that country is quite advanced in areas of music therapy: it moves a further step beyond how that discipline is generally practised in Australia. The approach he described concerns the idea of sound itself and deserves wider attention. Meanwhile, Peter Dickens from New Zealand talked about the not-for-profit organisation MusicHelps there, and the work it does with programs rather like Jail Guitar Doors in the youth justice system. They are involved in other interesting programs which are particularly concerned with mental health and care.

What was so significant about the panel was that it brought together people who are using music in a multiplicity of ways, and it highlights the fact that while much live performance of music has been halted right now due to the pandemic, there are nevertheless all of these other ways in which people can be engaged by, and feel connected by, music.”

What further developments have there been with the Jail Guitar Doors project?

“Guitars have been supplied by Fender through philanthropic support, although the project has not been able to proceed in earnest because the prisons have to be so very careful about possible coronavirus transmission. However, a report conducted on the impact of Jail Guitar Doors in the US has shown that the program there has improved participants’ relationships, not only with other inmates but with staff and officers in the prison system, and just as significantly it has improved their own family relationships.

This indicates how powerful a catalyst music can be in opening up pathways in communication. In the work I’ve previously done with Bell Shakespeare and young men in the juvenile justice system, these were individuals who had come from situations where they really didn’t know how to communicate, and by participating in team situations, engaging collaboratively, and keeping a weekly journal of their ideas, they learned to put their emotions into words. The outcomes were reduced aggression and an increased sense of self-worth, which can be put down to having found avenues to verbalise their thoughts and feelings.”

How could these ideas be transferred into the wider community to help people in present situations of need?

“I think programs like Jail Guitar Doors have applicability for different situations, of course depending on individuals and their different capacities. They are avenues for people to connect. The Men’s Sheds program in regional communities or outer suburban areas is another. In these, men can meet and collaborate to build something together whether it is a chicken house for a local school or anything else. What this does is give to those participating the opportunity to be a part of something collectively, and to see tangible results for their efforts. For inmates participating in Jail Guitar Doors, the inmates have songs at the end of it, and whether they are recorded or not, it is lasting evidence of their journey of discovery that they’ve been through.

Music Australia’s Music: Count Us In is of course another model. In this, there’s a real sense of connectedness that comes from schools and teachers who bring that program to their students. Music Australia also provides the beautiful Auslan program, which is also quite remarkable in the way children can connect through a kind of choreography in which they know the words and can hear the melody. I think that’s another starting point.”

Could the idea of instrument-making workshops have wider community application as well?

“Indeed. A perfect example is Bicheno Primary School (on Tasmania’s east coast), where they have some bass marimbas cut from lengths of PVC pipe, and a very inventive school groundsman actually carved the wood to tune them. Students in Year 6 showed me initials that they had written on the back of some of the keys when they started playing in Years 1-2, and the kids proudly showed these to me. They feel really connected to their school through this program, because they had been given a part in the existence of those instruments.

When I was at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (as Director of Learning and Engagement) one of our musicians, percussionist Mark Robinson, put together the idea of the Fifty Dollar Samba Band in a Bucket, which was a combination of buckets, dowel and other items that one can buy at a local hardware store, to allow 10-12 children to each have an instrument. Then he taught the kids samba rhythms, and we invited them to participate in Symphony Under The Stars at Parramatta Park, along with Basin Street Blues and James Morrison. This gave them a way into musical performance through rhythm. This kind of experience brings schools and communities together through music.”

What about the situation regarding the health of musicians, many of whom are facing hardship right now?

“There was a little bit of discussion in the panel about this. I think there was a sensitivity about not delving too far into particular organisations or musicians as examples, but there was certainly an awareness of the need for people for whom music is their craft and livelihood, to be making music to survive this pandemic. It’s who they are.

The opportunity to start Jail Guitars Doors in the Sydney prisons came on the back of the awful bushfires earlier on the year and the wonderful Fire Fight Australia fundraising concert that was held in Sydney in February. Think about how all those musicians generously participated to make that possible. I think it shows how people involved in the creative industries are always prepared to come together to support any part of our society in crisis. Now we have this virus, which is in effect an invisible enemy of the arts. It’s their time for needing support.”

Music Australia has created a video that celebrates the wonderful work that many organisations are doing to support music industry workers. See what Support Act, CrewCare, Entertainment Assist, MEAA and the Arts Wellbeing Collective are doing to help. View it here on YouTube.

Linda Lorenza is Music Australia’s Councillor representing Opera and Music Theatre.

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