As an artist, what does it mean to you to play for Breathe within the context of a healthcare setting?

A great deal. Most of my work is about establishing a personal connection with people through music, and due to circumstances, these connections in healthcare settings are potentially all the more poignant and focused. Perhaps because of the surprise element of music in hospitals, people’s reactions can seem as positive as any I’ve ever experienced. I feel honoured to be given the privilege of being a part of people’s lives at such a significant time.

Do you feel that playing within this context has an impact on your artistic practice?

Yes! I start every interaction by asking for musical requests, so I’ve had a lot of practise at playing by ear (making stuff up!). My repertoire is a lot bigger than it used to be! The dynamics in healthcare situations are completely different to those in traditional classical scenarios, and I’ve learnt to be very responsive to what’s going on around me, both in terms of the reaction of those I’m playing to, and also the external factors in out patient clinics or wards. If a patient’s name is called in a waiting room just at the musical climax of a piece, the announcement always wins over the music as I swiftly ‘turn the volume knob down’!

You have an unusual role within Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust – how do people respond?

On the whole, extremely positively – that goes for staff, patients, and visitors. The joy that my mere arrival sometimes causes – the anticipation of live music – is incredible (and hard for me as a musician to understand). I should say that this is not always the case – some people don’t react visibly at all to anything that I do, which is very humbling. I think my role is a package deal. The idea of live music often has to be sold to a group of people, and presented in a non threatening way. The unexpected nature of the sessions can be wonderful surprise to some, but can create a tension between those that are open to it, and those for whom it is more unfamiliar or unwelcome. If the latter group can be won over, amazing moments can occur. 

Can you share a moment from your time playing with Breathe that has stayed with you?

I played to an elderly man on a ward recently. He wasn’t communicating, so I spoke to his daughter who was with him. She requested Chopin initially, and then several other classical pieces. The man gradually became more responsive, and interacted with both me and his daughter. When I left them, the daughter commented that she hadn’t seen him smile like that for over a month. One never knows the exact context for comments from patients and visitors, but this felt extremely significant to me.

Are there any units you go to that you particularly look forward to visiting? Why?

One to one interactions with patients at the bedside in wards can be especially rewarding; I enjoy visiting the satellite dialysis units – regular visits mean I know the patients there and have a rapport with them. Patients often have requests for me to play. Patient transport at Guys is great fun. Perhaps because it’s not a clinical environment patients and visitors seem more relaxed (and that they’re on their way home!). The staff here seem particularly up for a laugh too, so the sessions have a wonderful dynamic. Lots of singing, and banter with the staff / patients / visitors. Priceless moments, often uniting very diverse communities. More generally, patient stress levels are perhaps lower in clinics that patients and visitors frequent regularly, and so people here are maybe more open to what I do (Haematology Day Centre for example). 


When you’re not working with Breathe, what else do you do?

I’m a dad to two young boys, and spend a large chunk of my time with them doing the usual parenting stuff, which I enjoy immensely. Workwise, I’m a musician in residence at Harefield Hospital and Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, and play regularly at Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust. I get my orchestral fix by leading the London Phoenix Orchestra, and perform my music comedy show as manic, idiot violinist Sid Bowfin at Street Festivals and Cabaret Clubs across the UK and beyond. I also perform a classical music children’s show in schools and at children’s festivals. And my string trio The Bowfins (“brilliantly funny and musically brilliant..”) is achieving notoriety for comedy musical improv sessions! 

Tell us your Desert Island Discs

I could agonise about this for years. Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever? Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin? The Essential Michael Nyman? Please let me take my violin, and then I can play whatever is in my head.