The healing power of melody


`It's about music coming to the people who can't go to the music," explains Sean O'Doherty, who is the manager of the Day Activity Centre at Clontarf's Central Remedial Clinic. He is talking about Music Network's autumn series - Concerts in Healthcare Environments - which have been taking place in hospitals, day-care centres, clinics and special schools around the Republic.

"These concerts are for people who can't easily access live music, because of a lack of wheelchair facilities at venues, or the difficulties of organising a special taxi," O'Doherty explains. Since September, Music Network's visits have included: Tralee's National Training and Development Institute; Moore Abbey in Monasterevin, Co Kildare; St John's Special School in Dungarvan, Co Waterford; and the Alzheimer Society of Ireland in Drimnagh and Raheny, Dublin.

"The concerts aren't intended as music therapy as such," explains Assumpta Lawless of Music Network. "But some of them certainly have drawn very positive responses from people who would have learning difficulties, or problems in communication."

"Listening to music can't do any harm," adds O'Doherty. "Music therapy generally is regarded as something which is pro-active rather than passive but, of course, people will sometimes have strong responses to music. Particularly those people who are coming to terms with recent disability, and who would be grieving for the way of life they have lost."

It's 11 a.m. in the Clontarf Central Remedial Clinic in Dublin, and a score of people are waiting in the day centre for the recital to begin. The people who are here today have acquired disabilities, such as multiple sclerosis, brain tumours, post-stroke difficulties, or injuries sustained in road accidents. Most would have led independent lives before the onset of illness. Several of them are in wheelchairs, such as Larry Dawson and Fintan Diggins, who both have MS.

Ellen Cranitch, Ruth Hickey, and Vyvienne Long are tuning their instruments: flute, clarinet, and cello respectively. They are part of the pool of musicians who have been performing at the various concerts. All three are freelance musicians, who are relatively new to performing before audiences with special needs.

"It's hard to know how to pitch things," Cranitch says. "We have to be ready for audience participation."

The trio, who go by the name of The Three Belles when they play together, begin with a piece by Galligan, who suffered a brain injury after a road accident. Each short piece of music is introduced by Cranitch, and all three take turns to explain how their particular instrument works.

When Long stands up and talks about how she makes music from her cello, Natalie Redmond gets up and comes over to touch the strings. "I've always wanted to do that," she says. Redmond was in a road accident as a child.

"Make a wish!" Long tells her. Redmond looks ecstatic.

Over the hour that the recital lasts, the trio plays a selection of classical and traditional tunes. When they play She Moved Through the Fair, a slow appreciative humming goes up around the room.

"Would you have The Fields of Athenry?" asks Paul McCarthy, who has Huntingdon's disease - a hereditary muscular illness, which also affects sight.

"I'll play it if you sing it," Ellen replies. And after a while, Paul starts singing, very softly. Slowly, everyone in the room starts singing or humming with him as the three musicians play the tune. There is a palpable atmosphere in the room of something indefinable, but wonderful, happening. The spontaneous, unplanned airing of The Green Fields of France turns out to be the tune which gets the best applause of the morning.

The Dublin-based Music Network was established by the Arts Council in 1986. Although its primary source of funding comes from the Arts Council, it also receives sponsorship from the EBS. Music Network aims to make music accessible to all the citizens of Ireland, regardless of circumstances or location.

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