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Helping Children Face Illness And Bereavement Through Music

Ellie Fletcher uses the unique power of music to help children with life limiting illnesses express their feelings and connect with friends and family. Since joining ellenor as a music therapist a year ago, she has seen huge benefits for patients and their families.

Her clients range from children living with life limiting illness, and those undergoing treatment for medical conditions, to bereaved youngsters who need to express their grief. She works at the hospice in Northfleet, in schools in the local community, in people’s own homes and online.

“Music therapy gives children a chance to be listened to and responded to,” she said. “I think all of us, regardless of what we face in life, can appreciate music in different ways. It can help you to be creative and motivated, but it can also help you to remember or to relax. It can also be a celebration. You can express a complexity of emotion and connect with others through music.”

Ellie qualified as a music therapist in the summer of 2020 and is employed by the Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy Charity, which uses music to enrich the lives of people with life limiting illnesses, disabilities or feelings of isolation. She spends two days a week with partner organisation ellenor.

She said: ““The work I do with each child, or each family is completely unique. You don’t have to be musical to benefit from music therapy.  I work with what a child can do, and what they enjoy, responding to them musically.  It may be as simple as responding to a child’s breathing through music. Or maybe a child moves in a certain way to music or enjoys exploring instruments.  Perhaps a child will have a piece of music that reminds them of someone they have lost. We could learn to play or sing that together.  Through listening, and responding, I work to enable each child to be an active participant in the music and to experience the benefits that music offers. 

“Everyone referred to me has a different set of circumstances and faces different challenges. It’s all about adapting and responding, shifting and evolving.”

Referrals come to Ellie from other members of the Children’s Service, maybe through a nurse or a member of the respite team. She also works closely with ellenor’s play therapist.

She said: “Referrals can also come through the adult service, when they have a child who has lost someone. Schools often contact us too about pupils who may have been under our care or had a family member under our care, who could benefit from our therapies.”

Ellie, who is married with two children aged ten and 12, learned to play the violin from the age of four and the piano from the age of seven, and is now also learning to play the guitar.

She said: “I started so young because my mum was a musician and a music teacher. I can look back on difficult times in my own life where I have found music to be an expressive outlet – often when words will not suffice.

“I originally did a music degree, which included a module about music therapy, but then I became a primary school teacher. After having my own children, I started to read a lot about music therapy and did an evening course, then I decided to see if I could train as a music therapist. It seemed to build on my past experiences in music and teaching and I went on to do a master’s in music therapy with Nordoff Robbins.

“Many of my sessions at ellenor are in the playroom where there is a piano and lots of instruments. When I go out to schools, I take a keyboard and other instruments with me.”

Ellie’s school sessions for ellenor are particularly popular, with music therapy becoming part of the child’s school life.

She said: “Sometimes small groups of a child’s classmates can join in too and that works really well. Music promotes a sense of connection and belonging, which can be especially valuable when a child’s is facing challenging circumstances.  Making music in groups is about listening and responding to each other and creating together.”

Individual after-school sessions are also held at the hospice and Ellie is hoping ellenor will be able to hold more group gatherings now Covid restrictions are more relaxed.

She said: “During the pandemic we did a lot of our sessions on Zoom, and we still do this if that’s what people would prefer. I have done a few online sessions with children and their parents, which have worked well, sometimes offering parents and carers a chance to interact with their child in a new way.

“I have also worked at creating digital tracks with some of the older children and teenagers who relate well to this style of music and enjoy the process of creating in this way.  We have experimented with a range of software, finding different loops that we can put together such as drum beats and bass lines and experimenting with finding a sound and style that a young person likes, working towards producing their own tracks.  This can be really empowering, especially for children who may find it difficult to access instruments due to physical limitations. Music is for everybody.

“The job of a music therapist is to facilitate access to the benefits of music. Some people might not be able to access music as easily as others because of illness or life limiting conditions or because they are facing difficult life circumstances, such as bereavement. As a music therapist, you must listen to people’s needs in order to release their musical potential.”

Pre-pandemic, Ellie was enjoying singing in groups during her spare time and loves playing string quartets.  She was recently delighted to be able to play again in a chamber orchestra for a carol service.

She is thankful she can spend her working life facilitating people in exploring music in an environment that is warm and welcoming.

She said: “ellenor is a lovely place and its focus on holistic care for families is in line with what music therapy is all about.

“I started working with ellenor during the pandemic. It is a lovely community, and it will be good to start seeing more people coming in again now and accessing the wellbeing services.”

In the meantime, Ellie has discovered that music can reach out to people in all situations, of all ages from all walks of life – despite Covid restrictions. She has even researched which face coverings are easiest to wear while singing!