In a year where arts organisations and charities have been hit extraordinarily hard by lockdowns and restrictions on social interaction, new innovative approaches have been put in place to ensure their vital work continues.
No-one knows this more than the team at Singing Medicine who have created a limited-edition singing teddy bear to raise vital funds for their work supporting the health and wellbeing of ill children. The bear, named Noah because of its meaning rest and comfort, plays the team’s signature song ‘Music Inside’ when the jacket button is pressed providing comfort to children while encouraging them to sing and play.
We spoke to Rebecca Ledgard, Director of Education, about how the pandemic has impacted and reshaped their approach helping vulnerable children in hospital.
Tell us about Singing Medicine and how it started?
We (Ex Cathedra) were running our Singing Playgrounds project for primary schools which is all about playing through singing. Sally Spencer, one of the singers in Ex Cathedra choir, was working on our community programme and had been involved in some of our Singing Playgrounds work. She was, and still is, a nurse in Birmingham Children’s Hospital. She said, ‘The children I work with need this too!’. We began to explore how we could include the children in the hospital in the Symphony Hall Singing Playgrounds workshops and soon decided actually we should create a special project where we took the singing play to them in their hospital beds.
Why is Singing Medicine important? How do we benefit from singing?
We think singing, and singing-play is really important! Sally describes singing in Ex Cathedra choir as her own singing medicine. We are all really passionate that all children should play and develop through singing and have the chance to enjoy singing. When we sing cortisol is reduced (stress) and feel-good hormones are released. It’s the body’s natural pain killer, all areas of the brain are stimulated, the deeper breathing aids healing and fights infection. And it’s just wonderful to sing with other people. It makes us feel good. When we started Singing Medicine we just wanted not to leave out children in hospital from our education and participation work, but we soon realised how enormously beneficial it was for them for being distracted, soothed and calmed, or stimulated and having fun, and being able to use their imaginations and make decisions through the singing games we create.
The choir has been visiting sick children weekly at the Birmingham Children’s Hospital for the past 16 years, how has the pandemic affected these visits?
The whole team (or nearly) happened to be together on Friday 13th March 2019 celebrating team birthdays when we found out we would not be able to go back on the wards for a very long time. Together there and then we discussed how the children would need Singing Medicine even more so now that they were about to become even more isolated – and we should not stop. We decided there and then that Singing Medicine mission, aims and values didn’t need to change, only how we got Singing Medicine to the children. We started to plan how we could make interactive singing films for the children as though we were still sat next to them.
What is the inspiration behind Noah Bear?
For years we dreamed of having a singing teddy to leave with the children when we left them but this seemed an impossibility. During lockdown Joanna Harrison (The Snowman) imagined and drew us a bear. Vada Recording Studios helped us with the recording to put inside and Louis Kennedy offered to make the singing bear in support of Singing Medicine. Noah Bear has been a real boost to us (we have also felt the impact of these difficult times) and he has inspired our creativity – he now has his own youtube playlist of singing games for the little children!
When you squeeze him Noah Bear sings and then says, ‘Will you sing with me?’ and then continues to sing. We were sent a film of a little girl singing with Noah Bear which was wonderful!
Noah Bear sings a beautiful song. Did the Singing Medicine team compose it?
I composed it to use in one of our SingMaker workshops and Rob Challinor added his magic and brought it alive. We filmed children in the hospital singing the song, coincidentally and amazingly the week before lockdown working with the chaplaincy team.
When we were thinking what song we should put inside the teddy bear Music Inside seemed fitting because the lyrics are ‘Music in me bubbles inside. Music in me makes me smile. Music in me makes my heart sing. I’ve got music inside.’
What is your favourite thing about being a part of ‘Singing Medicine’?
Everything! I get to work with a special group of people, who are joyous and creative and want to make a difference to children. The teamwork is wonderful.
What is one of your most unforgettable ‘Singing Medicine’ moments of the last 16 years?
Each team member has their own special memory that stays with them. I can’t forget how three of us were brought into a room where a large family had gathered, to sing to a child because the grandfather wanted Singing Medicine to be the last thing his grandchild experienced. He sang with us while his daughter rocked her child.
One of the last sessions before lockdown was a little boy sat in his leather jacket on his bed. He was very sick. He was from Syria and neither of us spoke each other’s language, although I attempted thank you at the end. We played a singing game and played some percussion and we laughed together too. He grinned and waved when we left.
Singing Medicine member Gemma always recalls the time we were asked to sing with a patient who had not spoken for 2 weeks after undergoing surgery. The patient was scared of hospital and everything that was going on there. The nurses explained that we would probably not get much response from them. However, we sang and played a jungle game and dad did an Oscar-winning performance of a monkey. The child’s tummy moved as though they were laughing. We then moved on to a picnic song and each adult took a turn as though they were all playing together and including the child. When it came to their turn in the song, mum sang as though helping her, “have you brought the” and she got interrupted by the child at the top of her voice shouting “bananas!”. Other than one whispered “Daddy'” it was the first word she had uttered in 2 weeks.
There are also so many wonderful moments every visit though where a child sings and smiles and we laugh together. The others in the team talk of situations where they were able to distract a child with singing-play when something perhaps painful or horrible was happening to them, or the first time a child spoke after being in a coma and the joy and laughter and happy tears from parents and nurses dancing. It’s not uncommon for a child to sing even though they are not talking. There are so many I couldn’t single out just one.
You’re based in the West Midlands but your work reaches far beyond this location. Can you give us some examples of this?
Birmingham Children’s Hospital is like our home but we have also delivered Singing Medicine to Great Ormond Street, Warwick, and Heartlands. We’ve also presented it in Auckland and Singapore.
And we are now online and so everyone can get involved around the world. Our interactive films are free to access and easily accessed via our YouTube channel Ex Cathedra Singing Medicine – YouTube
We also host a Facebook Live session every Friday at 10:30am (pandemic restrictions permitting) (1) Ex Cathedra – Singing Medicine and Singing Pathways | Facebook
Where can you buy Noah Bear? How can people get involved and support the work you do?
There are multiple ways people can get involved and support us. We would be really grateful if people bought their own Noah Bear for a child they know. Every child can benefit from singing with Noah Bear – singing through play. And the sale of every Noah Bear will bring financial support to enable us to keep bringing Singing Medicine to children in hospital – at the moment through our interactive singing films, and one day soon when we can go back onto the wards.
You can also find lots more merchandise to purchase and Christmas gifts to browse at www.bekindsingwithnoah.com
You can also make a donation to the project here: https://cafdonate.cafonline.org/9566#!/DonationDetails
Or Text: SING, followed the by the amount you wish to donate e.g. SING5 to donate £5 to 70470
What would Noah Bear’s wish for Christmas be?
That everyone realises how important singing is for children – all children, and just gets singing.
Twitter: @singingmed & @RebeccaLedgard