For those with brain diseases such as dementia, music and song can unlock memories and emotions that are otherwise unattainable. In fact, music therapy is now a widely acknowledged method of helping people living with dementia to form connections to their past and manage behaviours
Few people understand the healing power of music better than Phoebe Gorry, a jazz singer who performs in hospitals, care homes and special needs schools.
Gorry works with Music in Hospitals & Care (MiHC), an organisation that provides live concerts in healthcare settings.
“To perform for people who can’t get out and see live music is incredibly rewarding,” she says. “You realise just how powerful music is. It really can make people feel special.”
While MiHC is a charity, its performances are strictly professional. The singers and instrumentalists on its books are all pros who are paid for their services.
Singers are accompanied by a pianist or guitarist (no backing tracks here) and draw on a broad repertoire.
Gorry, who studied pop and rock at the Academy of Contemporary Music before branching out into jazz, can turn her hand to everything from jazz and dance hall, to pop, funk and Disney favourites.
This versatility is essential as every MiHC concert is tailored to suit the audience.
“You need to leave your ego at the door and think about what the audience wants to hear,” explains Gorry, who also works as Concerts Co-ordinator for the charity.
“You’re there to make them feel better. It’s very important that you read the room and ask the audience what they would like to hear. You need to be able gauge your surroundings and think on your feet.”
These surroundings could be anything from a crowded hospital wing to a neo natal ward or mental health facility. The audience may be instantly receptive, or shy and reticent. Whatever the situation, it’s up to the singer to build a rapport.
The power of song
Gorry has witnessed all sorts of reactions to her performances; some people listen with their eyes closed (a smile gently forming on their lips), others shed a tear or two or merrily sing along.
And sometimes the response is even more dramatic. One of Gorry’s most unforgettable experiences took place in a children’s ward. After singing for young people with cancer and premature babies, nurses beckoned her into a side room to perform for a ten-year-old girl in a comatose state.
“Her mum said to me ‘please sing something upbeat’ so we performed the Pharrell Williams song Happy.
“To everyone’s amazement, and for the first time in weeks, the girl opened her eyes. Her mum and sister started crying. It was incredibly moving. But as a performer you can’t let emotion overwhelm you. You have to keep singing.”
As well as being personally rewarding, the MiHC concerts have helped Gorry develop professionally.
“I’m now a more well-rounded performer. I’m prepared for all eventualities and can sing at the drop of a hat, as opposed to taking hours to prepare for a gig.
“It’s also broadened my vocal skills and repertoire and helped me become more empathetic. I used to be quite shy about talking to the audience, but I’ve gotten much better at it over time.”
“I now know why I sing.”
Her music philosophy has crystallised too. “When I was younger, I was very concerned about how I looked and how many gigs I was getting. The pop and jazz worlds are very competitive and as time goes by you can forget why you started performing in the first place.
“Now I know I’m here because I love singing. It brings me joy and to share that joy with people who are struggling is a privilege.”
Become an MiHC singer
MiHC has offices in Manchester, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Walton-on-Thames, Surrey (where Gorry is based). Twice a year the charity holds auditions for performers who would like to secure a place on its roster. (Note to singers: MiHC concerts are at 11am or 2pm on weekdays so conveniently don’t clash with gigging commitments at evenings or weekends.)
What does it take to become an MiHC singer? “Obviously you need good performance skills but as engagement and communication are at the forefront of what we do, interpersonal skills are vital too,” Gorry says. “It’s about having that personality and being able to think and perform in the moment.”