THE BLOG

Put Your Slippers in the Air, Like You Just Don't Care

02/07/2014 12:00 BST | Updated 31/08/2014 10:59 BST

I love Glastonbury, but I'm slightly embarrassed to admit I've never actually been. Yet, thanks to the Beeb it's one of my annual TV highlights. I'm glued to it, flicking between Pyramid and John Peel stages on the red button; all the while experiencing emotions fluctuating between envy, shame and smugness watching the hoards of dirty happy punters while I lounge on the sofa with my cuppa and queue-less loo.

As I write this, about 80,000 Glastofarians are jumping up and down in unison to Sunday night headliners, Kasabian. I am a music therapist and they have reminded me, somewhat bizarrely, of an experience I had in a care home last week.

I was playing the piano when I noticed Winnie, a frail old lady who generally sits silently in her chair during our group music therapy sessions, tapping her foot along to the music. To encourage her participation I started playing and singing the Can-Can in time with her oscillating slipper. When she realized what was happening she began to kick higher, which in turn attracted the attention of other residents in the group. Within moments, half a dozen seated octogenarians were high(ish)-kicking in sync - not a sight you see every day - and singing lustily, subsequently joined by a nurse and a resident's three year old great grandson.

It was an experience that was both joyously surreal and yet instinctively human. Because whether jumping to Kasabian or high-kicking to Offenbach, this tendency towards synchronicity through music is something we all recognize. Give 10 strangers a drum each and ask them to start playing together - within a few moments they will all be playing at the same basic tempo.

As social animals, our natural inclination is to seek out common ground and shared experiences with others. Music can be a powerful motivating force to help find these moments of connection. It created the context for Winnie's foot-tapping to become communicative and therefore meaningful. Without music, she would have been just an elderly woman with a foot twitch. And it provided the motivation for other residents to join in with her.

Musicologist Christopher Small famously coined the term Musicking. He said that 'music' is not a noun, but a verb; and is something we participate in whether we are playing, singing, dancing or even just listening. It is through this 'musicking' activity that connections are made and relationships established; and we find meaning within these connections. So even before Winnie began moving her leg, by listening and being part of the music group she was contributing actively to it. And whether lead guitarist or fan 200 rows back, everyone present was contributing to the act (and hence the 'meaning') of the Kasabian gig.

Finding meaning through shared musical connection is at the heart of what music therapists like myself do. And often the starting point for those musical connections is a client's body.

Music has a powerful physical ordering and integrating effect on us, in part because our bodies are regulated musically. The steady rhythm of the rise and fall of our breathing or our gait creates a natural point of entry for a musical connection. Indeed for some clients such as those in neuro-rehabilitation with a brain injury, this at first may be all they can contribute musically.

This importance of musical components in ordering our lives extends from within us to between us. From our first moments and throughout our lives we look for rhythmic and melodic synchrony with others through our body language or speech, in order to form the basis for empathy and meaningful communication.

Where illness affects the synchrony within us (our healthy body's naturally interconnected functions) it can also affect the synchrony between us; our ability to communicate. This in turn can often lead to isolation and depression.

Here is an example of how music improvised between two people (Richard, Nordoff Robbins music therapist and Kath, a lady with advanced dementia) creates a context in which Kath can once again experience order, synchrony, companionship and therefore meaning from what we can guess must be a very disordered, lonely, meaningless world.

Perhaps their music and dance together isn't as exhilarating as being part of the audience at a huge rock gig, but for me (and more importantly for Kath) it is every bit as connected, and just as powerful.

The O2 Silver Clef Awards, raising funds for Nordoff Robbins, takes place on Friday 4th July.