Music for the Common Good

Image: Andrey Konstantinov

What do you think of when you think of a classical musician? Do you think of big orchestras and lavish concert halls? Men in tailcoat suits and women in long black clothing that you wouldn’t see anywhere else? Or maybe you have no classical music background and you just think classical music is for a different age range or class of society.

I’m a British classical musician on the ELP programme. In British society, classical music is seen as something for the elite or the middle class. As someone who started playing an instrument almost by accident and then received many scholarships to continue my education, I’ve always been aware that I’m not from the expected background. So, I’ve always found interest in classical music when it is taken outside the concert hall. I am glad that there is a shift from the mindset that any work outside the concert hall is “outreach” to it being considered a fundamental part of a musician’s job. 

Music has many health and social benefits, but these can often be missed due to preconceptions. I have had the privilege of playing in many of the world’s greatest concert halls in several different countries. But these are not the performances I am the most fulfilled by. I’m going to take you through two examples as case studies of music in unexpected places in the early stages of my career.

In August 2022, I had the privilege of organising music-making sessions in a centre housing Ukrainian refugees in Poland. Alongside a colleague from the UK, we were volunteering with faith-based NGO Operation Mobilisation. This meant we were able to embed music-making for therapeutic purposes within existing kids’ work sessions. We prepared Ukrainian folk songs and their national anthem on oboe and piano to be able to use musical language familiar to them. We used this music as a basis for improvisation in one-to-one and two-to-one musical encounters. This enabled us to create new music with the children and young people. Through them playing small percussion instruments, singing or playing the keyboard they were able to control rhythm, tempo and dynamics in our musical relationships. 

In other parts of the sessions, we ran group games. These included beatboxing and rhythmic dance games with egg shakers. On one memorable day that included dancing to improvised Brazilian music provided by my colleague and I. There was a large group of people in a circle beatboxing and copying the rhythmic movement of each person when they were in the middle of the circle. It was a moment of joy and a privilege to witness some of the young people who had been quite distant in previous sessions let go and appear to enjoy themselves.

Whilst we didn’t share a common fluently spoken language with these families it was a privilege to be able to communicate through the language of music. These families had been housed at a holiday complex which lacked the facilities for long-term living. Whilst we did not actively bring up the topic of the war it was never far from anybody’s mind. The sense of frustration and lack of stimulation as these families lived in perpetual limbo was tangible.

The reason we improvised in the way that we did was so that by giving the children and young people musical control they had a sense of ownership which had been lost in so many other areas of their lives. We were there the week that families began leaving either to return to Ukraine or to a third country. Often this meant the decision to leave fathers and husbands at war in Ukraine. Families often left without giving notice to the other families as it was too difficult to say another goodbye. This created an almost muted but emotional atmosphere in the sessions on those days. The ability for us to explore the wide spectrum of emotions through music gave an opportunity both to process and be distracted in moments of joy. 

During my final year at music college, I was the recipient of a Royal Northern College of Music Entrepreneurship Award. I was able to pioneer a project called Music and M.E. providing composition sessions for young people under the care of the chronic fatigue/M.E. syndrome clinic at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital. 

By the time I was able to deliver the project following graduation, the COVID pandemic had hit. As lots of things did at that time that meant the transition to online working. In this case, running sessions online was actually very beneficial for the patients. As a condition chronic fatigue/M.E includes fluctuating levels of energy, generalised chronic pain and impaired cognitive function amongst other coexisting symptoms. For patients who needed to limit their activity level it was helpful to be able to do short but effective sessions online without the need to travel to a venue. It also enabled things like rest breaks or the volume to be turned down for participants that needed that.

Working with a colleague, we delivered graphic score workshops across four weeks. I asked the participants to write words on the zoom whiteboard related to M.E/chronic fatigue syndrome then they each created a shape to represent the word. Then everyone wrote a few seconds of music representing these shapes. We then moved on to ask for words that might represent a “superpower” they had gained from the otherwise negative experience of having a chronic illness. So, we talked a lot about concepts such as courage, determination, or problem-solving and developed music in response to that. We were then able to collate the music and write a podcast which was broadcast on the radio.

I suffered from M.E/chronic fatigue syndrome for around 10 years. So it was very powerful to be able to use this experience to support other people. I was humbled by the level of feedback from both participants and their parents. It had clearly been a meaningful project and for several participants gave them hope in a really difficult time. The only negative feedback was that the course had been too short. It had been that short simply because of the funding constraints.

Today’s classical musicians are trained professionals with skills far beyond just the intricate art of performing. Musicians are skilled in funding bids, project management, marketing, and everything that comes along with communicating a creative idea. Many musicians would love to do far more work in the community, but the funding simply isn’t there. It would be wonderful to see funding increase, rather than decrease, so that the wider community can benefit from the physical, psychological and social benefits music brings.


Jessica Holmes

ELP 8th cohort Fellow