Songbirds is a music project with nonverbal children and young people with complex health and communication needs at The Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital.
Using bespoke music compositions, musicians Ros Hawley and Mark Fisher deliver interactive and responsive music-making sessions at the bedside, enabling children to develop communication, interaction and creative expression using gesture, facial expression, vocalisation and small percussion instruments.
A radio play for families, A Songbird’s Tale, accompanies the project.
Children experiencing long-term hospitalisation and rehabilitation, including those with acquired brain injury and on long-term ventilation, families and staff.
Songbirds promotes learning and exchange between medical professionals, families and musicians.
Children and families at risk of isolation due to medical circumstances have opportunities to access high quality music-making as part of rehabilitation.
Life experiences of children and families are enriched through responsive and interactive music-making.
Children’s communication, social and emotional wellbeing, confidence and motor skills are developed.
Specialist musicians further develop their expertise through a long-term residency programme.
Hospital musicians’ practice is embedded within the existing community of the hospital ward.
Learning gained is used to inform future best practice in hospital music programmes.
The project advocates for the benefits of established, longer term musician residencies within healthcare and focuses on the creative and musical abilities of children living with a long-term medical diagnosis or disability, or life-changing injury.
Ros and Mark have developed their practice together since 1998. They have comprehensive experience of devising and leading creative music projects and musicians’ training in disability, educational and residential settings, and in adult and children’s health and palliative care settings.
They provide site-specific and bespoke music projects created in consultation with healthcare and education professionals, creating specially composed material that is responsive to the environment and enables interaction, participation and communication between musicians, patients, families and staff.
Extensive experience of working with non-verbal children and young people is a key element of their practice.
At the centre of Songbirds is the acknowledgement that a child’s smallest gesture can direct the act of music-making; the musicians watch and listen carefully to the children, and create musical interactions in response to these gestures.
Residencies consist of blocks of regular visits to wards. The musicians take care to colour the ward with their theme tune on arrival, and then work with individual children at the bedside in extended sessions that allow the children to become comfortable and confident in communicating with the musicians.
During the first phase of Songbirds (2014/15) the musicians observed a range of responses made by the children as they engaged with them in music-making:
A gentle turn of the head, tracking of the sound of the clarinet or the guitar, reaching out a fingertip to make contact, clapping hands, moving fingers and feet, vocalisation, eye contact and the pace of breathing were used to inform music-making created in the moment.
The musicians noted how these initial responses developed as the children gained confidence and were then able to identify indicators showing how a child could develop the ability over time to be an ‘independent musical communicator’.
They also observed how the act of music-making helped to increase oxygen saturation and reduce high heart rates caused by the stress or anxiety experienced as part of hospitalisation.
A radio play, A Songbird's Tale, was written and recorded onto CD by Mark as part of the creative evaluation. The play focuses on a young bird who becomes poorly; with the help of his animal friends, and by learning to help himself, he finds his way back to his nest.
A series of logos designed by illustrator Kim Thompson depicting characters from the play were used to theme postcards, badges, goody bags and CD artwork and were included in Songbirds family packs given to children and families.
Each family pack included small percussion instruments for children and families to use together.
Recordings of music used on the wards are included on the CD.
A Songbirds Treasure Map leaflet combines project information and A Songbird’s Tale story map with a CD/ radio play SoundCloud link.
An independent evaluation was conducted by a team from The Salford School of Nursing and Midwifery and published in November 2016: Music-making with hospitalised children: outcomes for children, families, hospitals and musicians from LIME Medical Notes (2) and Songbirds Projects
A Songbirds paper on the musicians’ learning and practice was completed in December 2016 and is currently being reviewed for publication.
At times families found themselves in extremely sensitive and vulnerable situations due to the effects of a child’s illness, and the subsequent trauma they had experienced.
It was reported in the Salford evaluation that the music-making helped parents to experience 'hope' and to be able to 'glimpse the authentic child': 'Music-making on the Songbirds project engenders hope, enabling parents and staff to glimpse the authentic child, with parents reporting that they sometimes glimpsed their child as they were before illness or injury, or that they glimpsed who their child was or could become.'
'The emphasis given to the connecting relationships between the musicians and children and families in the Songbirds project is of particular importance. The contact needs to be regular and predictable to be of the greatest benefit. The regularity of contact creates the opportunity for a deepening relationship within a safe space.'
Documentation & Dissemination
A Songbirds event took place at The Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, bringing together families and professionals in September 2015.
Funders Youth Music commissioned a case study about the benefits of the project from a mother’s perspective – Lydia’s story – in March 2016.
A Songbirds presentation took place at The Royal Society of Medicine as part of a conference – Examining the Utility of Music Interventions for Children with Learning Disabilities – in November 2016.
Songbirds was selected by The National Children’s Bureau as a featured case study on ‘Listening to Individual Children’ in a leaflet for people working directly with disabled children and their families: ‘Listening to Young Disabled Children’. This leaflet was launched by the Early Childhood Unit and Council for Disabled Children in 2017.
The musicians delivered a webinar on Songbirds hosted by the organisation Early Arts in May 2016.
Musicians shared Songbirds music in performances at the CMFT concerts series.
'Beautiful moments and the power of music' captures one young boy's joyous engagement with the music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkDiIFhBztE
Another video captures a Songbirds session on Ward 83 at Royal Manchester Children's Hospital during a summer residency in 2016. Sibling Oliver engages in music-making on the ward with the musicians, enabling mum to spend crucial time with his brother, who needs her by his side: vimeo.com/206038043
Phase 1: 2014-2015, Phase 2: 2016-2018
LIME Music for Health
LIME Arts, Department of Specialised and Therapeutic Play Services
Youth Music, Central Manchester University Hospitals, NHS Foundation Trust
Mark Fisher, Ros Hawley
Literature, Music, Radio, Visual Arts
Children, Paediatric Hospital, Training & Education
Nature of Project
Collaborative/ participatory, Performance, Research, Residency