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Listening to the Person, and the Beat: How ellenor is Using Music to Tune into the Needs of Vulnerable Children

When you’re a music therapist, no two days are ever the same.

For Eleanor “Ellie” Fletcher, who spends one day a week working with the elderly in a care home and two with our Children’s Services team, to say her work is simply ‘varied’ would be an understatement.

In addition to our Northfleet-based inpatient and outpatient wards and comprehensive Hospice at Home team, ellenor also offers a range of wellbeing services. These are designed to fulfill the hospice's promise of a holistic approach – that is, caring for all aspects of a patient’s psychological, financial, social, and emotional health, as well as tending to their clinical needs.

To achieve this level of inclusive, highly personalised care, we work with an array of multi-disciplinary teams, including occupational therapists, physiotherapists, and counsellors. We are also continuing to harness emerging, innovative techniques and fields to help patients and families express themselves, come to terms with difficult feelings, and bond with each other via non-verbal mediums.

And here’s where music therapy comes in.

What is Music Therapy, exactly?

“At different times of our lives, we may face challenging circumstances, that mean we’re not able to access music as easily as somebody else is. A music therapist’s role is to facilitate people to access the benefits of music: whether that’s to express themselves, to be creative, to relax, to motivate, or to remember.”

Ellie is employed by one of ellenor's partner organisations, Nordoff Robbins, the largest music therapy charity in the UK and she is currently spending a couple of days a week working exclusively with our children.

“I think music therapy offers something really unique in ellenor’s Children’s Services Team.  It offers something completely different, alongside vital medical interventions, respite care and play therapy.”

Ellie runs a drop-in session for those aged under two, as well as family and one-to-one meetings. Parents or carers are always included, and – particularly since the pandemic has made the switch to Zoom a necessity – now play an even more instrumental role in making the session a success.

“I think the use of Zoom has really involved parents and carers in a different way. If the session had been face-to-face, I’d be helping the child to access an instrument, such as holding out a guitar for them to strum, or handing them something to make music with. Whereas now, the parent or carer is picking up that role – and actually, it might be offering them a new way to play with their child. For some families, it’s also been a real blessing to be able to just click in from home, rather than needing to arrange transport.”

The children Ellie works with may be patients themselves, or the siblings or children of those under our care. The therapy itself supports a variety of aims and goals that differ depending on the individual.

Benefits of Music Therapy

“The benefits of music therapy can be understood alongside the benefits of music itself. It might enhance a person’s expression and creativity. It might help somebody to develop meaningful interaction, especially if they can no longer talk, or if they’ve never been able to use words.

“Music can offer a wonderful way to come together, to create a two-way communication with someone without words. It often provides an opportunity to socialise with others and build community. And the added motivation of wanting to join in and move with the music which the therapist is creating uniquely for them can also help a child with specific physical aims.”

Ellie is a skilled violinist, and in addition to singing and playing the piano, is in the process of learning the guitar, too. Understandably, being an avid music listener comes with the territory. Yet it’s not listening to the music that Ellie identifies as the most important part of her role – it’s listening to the person.

“It’s all about listening to each individual person. Listening to who they are (however they express that) to where they’re at, and how you can respond to them musically. Here at ellenor, it’s about listening to the child and their family, and finding out what music can offer them. One family’s session is never going to look the same as someone else’s.”

As Ellie explains, listening is also instrumental in being able to use music therapy to meet the differing needs and personalities of each child.

Listening to the Person is Instrumental to Music Therapy

“I adapt to what each child can do. That might be working with somebody’s breathing, or with their eye movements, or with the lifting of a hand or arm. It might be a vocal sound. Whatever the child is doing, it’s about listening musically to it; thinking about how you can respond, and offering them a way to be an active participant in the music.

It could be that there’s a child who can lift a finger, or might take a deep breath at certain moments, so I respond to that musically, and create something with them through improvisation. It might also be that we use instruments, because there’s a child who responds really well to particular sounds. It’s a totally person-centered approach.”

Ellie also collaborates with the other arms of our Wellbeing Services, including its Respite Team and Play Therapists. Music Therapy is frequently a part of the charity’s GEMS (Grief: Every Memory is Special) days, which aim to help bereaved children share their experiences of grief, make friends, and begin to come to terms with their loss in a safe setting.

“Some young people can benefit from song writing – such as the sibling of a child who is unwell, or has passed away – and you help them create something to express their feelings, and remember. When I’ve worked on the GEMS weekends, we have talked about songs that remind us of people or times. People share a lot of their identity through the music that they listen to and love, and we want to facilitate that.”

Continuing to Make Music

So, how would Ellie like to see music therapy develop as a discipline in the future?

“I would hope over the next ten years that we see music therapy being available to more and more people – for it to become ‘expected’. For it to be a regular part of a hospice team – to be part of somebody’s holistic care – would be a wonderful thing.

“Music therapy is about engaging with patients, with their families, with staff… with the whole community: it has a ripple effect. It isn’t solely about working with individuals – we can enable a whole culture of music-making and creativity going forward.”