A rhythmic thud — a man in his twenties is clacking his crutches on the soft linoleum floor on his way to the café in the main lobby of Guy’s hospital. There, the barista expertly twists a valve on the espresso machine and it gives off a satisfying gurgle. This bustling Wednesday lunchtime the hospital is full of noises.
It’s a different rhythm every week at the Breathe Regularly lunchtime concerts, where a variety and richness of sounds from Flamenco to Rag-time, from theatre performances to Irish Folk music echoes right up to the high glass ceilings of Atrium 1. This week, a group of fifty or so patients, staff and visitors sit and listen attentively to the Edison Ensemble exploring the potential of contemporary classical music to engage and heal. “Very experimental this week. I love it,” a woman with an Irish lilt and a wide-brimmed green hat whispers. Marie is one of the volunteers with the Breathe Performing Arts Programme.
“It takes a certain kind of person to do this,” Marie says about the volunteering role. “You need to be able to talk to people. The visitors and patients we meet here go through such difficult times. Last week, we had a lady here waiting for her husband who was receiving chemotherapy treatment. It’s not always easy to speak to someone who is in distress. But the music helps them relax so much.”
Every week, apart from when they are on holiday or visiting family outside of London, Marie and her fellow volunteers Avril and Lis come to Guy’s Hospital several hours before the scheduled performance to put up posters, set up the equipment, greet the musicians and prepare the performance area and seating. Getting the cabling right, stacking chairs, keeping an eye on things to make sure everyone is safe – this is of course just the practical side of things. But there’s so much more to it. She meets new people and gets to see the surprise, transformation and joy in the faces of those walking past as they realise there is world class live music in the middle of a hospital. “Every week I meet somebody who makes me feel very humble and it makes me stop and take stock of my own life. It is amazing to see the change in people before and after their musical experiences. And for me personally, I also find that if you work with fellow-volunteers so closely over such a long period of time you form very strong friendships and you can always have a laugh together.”
Marie knows about the importance of her work. “The concerts are a really important fixture in many people’s lives, including staff, long-term patients and those living in our local communities. They come regularly, some of them every week. The other day, a woman who has been coming for over four years got in touch to tell me she wouldn’t be able to make it to the concert that day because she had a bad cold. The concerts have created their own community where people have formed peer networks through attending, so she knew she would be missed by fellow audience members.”
After six years of volunteering for the programme, Marie, who used to be a deputy head teacher at a primary school, still embraces the challenges of working with performers and people in a hospital setting. “It gives me a handle on my week and when you’re retired it’s a nice thing to feel valued. In a way, it’s like going into work. And it’s wonderful to hear all those different kinds of music for free.”
When the concert is over Marie stays back to chat to the musicians and the visitors to find out what people thought. It rarely happens that she doesn’t like the music she hears but even then she thinks it is a great conversation opener to to talk to the visitors about the things they have seen. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a bit of a philistine”, she laughs, “but the programme has so much diversity. And I love it when people get up and dance. But of course that’s not compulsory. Some people are happy to just have ten minutes or a quarter of an hour of downtime.”
After everyone has left the Atrium and Marie and the other volunteers have picked up all the brochures, moved back all the chairs and locked away the equipment Marie looks around. She is done for the day and off to meet a friend for coffee. As she walks away, she spots a small table on the side that still needs clearing away, hooks it under her arm and makes her way to the elevator. Only the slight squeak of her white Converse sneakers echo after her. Marie knows about the impact of the programme: “The hidden healing is unquantifiable.”
Marie is just one of a team of volunteers who help at our concerts at both Guy’s & St Thomas’ Hospitals – alongside Marie are Maureen, Lis, Sue, Jenny, Tina, and Kay.
If you are interested in volunteering alongside them at our concerts please get in touch on email@example.com.