How did Music in Hospices begin?

The idea for Music in Hospices started around a year before I arrived at the Academy. It stemmed from a personal experience, losing both my mother and godmother to cancer within a month of each other in December 2019.

I sat with my mum in a tiny hospice called Ty Olwen in Swansea for two months. Medically, the care was outstanding – you meet the most compassionate people in the darkest times. However, my mum was incredibly dynamic, brimming with humour and life and deeply passionate about the arts, culture and music, and I felt the social, psychological and spiritual aspects of the care were missing. She was nonverbal, so for two months I just sat by her bedside, talking to her and sharing the space. Increasingly, I felt helpless and longed for a better way to communicate.

Walking around the hospice I discovered a piano tucked away and covered with blankets. I lifted the lid, started to play and had instant emotional relief. I wheeled the piano onto the ward, placed it alongside my mum's bed and began playing songs like 'Somewhere over the Rainbow', 'We'll Gather Lilacs' and 'Moon River'. It was a deeply personal moment and, in truth, meant solely for my mum and me, but it had this insane ripple effect. Nurses commented on how wonderful it was to hear music on the ward, and it didn't just connect me with my family; the patient opposite my mum expressed it was the first time they felt relaxed in months and how it connected them with their family too, the first positive memory amidst many dark months. For weeks afterwards, the story of 'the boy who played piano for his mum' rippled through my small South Wales community.

During my first year at the Academy, Julian West, Head of Open Academy, emailed me about the Jacob Barnes Award for Collaborative Piano. The prize is awarded each year to a collaborative pianist performing in settings where people ordinarily wouldn't get the opportunity to hear music. Jonathan and Cherry founded it in memory of their son Jacob, an Academy alum and outstanding pianist and chamber musician who died age 21 from leukaemia. Jonathan and Cherry's story moved me; they transformed this heartbreaking, sudden loss into a catalyst for good. It lit a spark. I recalled my experience with my mum, submitted a proposal titled Music in Hospices, and connected immediately with Jonathan and Cherry over our shared experiences of palliative care. They generously awarded me the bursary, and Music in Hospices came to fruition.

How did Music in Hospices progress after you received this bursary?

What struck me immediately was the volume of support I received. I emailed many people, including every hospice in London and Wales and chief executives of national charities, honestly expecting an indifferent reception. Miraculously, into my inbox pinged emails from the former CEO of Hospice UK, the chairman of the International Palliative Care Alliance, the CEO of Nordoff Robbins, the former chief nurse of Marie Curie and the former CEO of Saint Christopher's Hospice in London, all expressing their support and offering guidance. I was moved, hugely taken aback.

A few months later, Mared Pugh-Evans, my co-founder, was undertaking an Open Academy Fellowship, and the final project was facilitating a music project in a community setting. We both have personal experiences of palliative care, so Mared approached Julian, recommending Music in Hospices. We generously received the financial support we needed, which led to a four-month pilot scheme – four 3.5-hour sessions – in Greenwich and Bexley Community Hospice, London.

Do you have any particularly memorable experiences working at this hospice?

The impact has been truly remarkable. During our most recent project the Hospice was empty, as all patients and their families were outside in the garden participating in a Music in Hospices session. For two hours, patients didn't require medical, physiological, or spiritual support.

More specifically, there was a wonderful lady who reminded me of my mum vividly. She was end-of-life, nonverbal and predominately unconscious. The nurses were unsure how we'd connect with her. As always, I asked them to tell me more about the patient's life; she was Irish, and a passionate rugby supporter with strong Celtic roots. Mared and I began playing the Irish rugby anthem, 'The Fields of Athenry', and she gently awoke and miraculously began singing all the words to the song. Afterwards, she spoke about her life and family and even heckled me about rugby! In 30 minutes, this lady regained agency and her sense of self after being disabled by her illness and society. That's when I realised the actual value of our mission.

What is the purpose of the charity, and what benefits does it bring to the communities it works with?

Music in Hospices brings creative arts into palliative care settings. We create a musical environment conducive to personalised care, so care transforms from purely medical to holistic. Our sessions allow patients to regain their sense of self. When diagnosed with a life-limited illness, patients often feel disabled by both society and the social-care system. We spend our entire lives creating a life which is dynamic and beautiful to us, filled with multitudinous loves and interests, that should continue despite a diagnosis of a terminal illness. During our sessions, we encourage, empower and collaborate with our participants. We build rapport, learn about their lives, meaningful moments, relationships, and interests, and cater music to the individual and their needs. It could be a meaningful song, a soundscape (for example, of the seaside as they recall a story), meditative improvisations for relaxation or even no music! It's of the utmost importance that we ensure patients feel empowered in each instance.

'Music in Hospices is for people, the planet and progress.'

What are the aspirations and plans for Music in Hospices?

Following our pilot, we received further funding to continue our work at Greenwich and Bexley Hospice, which is currently ongoing. We're about to launch two new partnerships with Orchestras for All and Norman's Music: two inspiring, sustainable organisations that provide us with secondhand, refurbished musical instruments which we donate to children and young adults of palliative care patients. In turn, we help the planet, families and communities alike, alleviating the financial and social barriers to music-making and allowing families to make music in memory of their loved ones. Music in Hospices is for people, the planet and progress.

We're working on expanding our creative arts offerings, building on our music provision to become a hub for creative arts entirely, including tai chi, art therapy, meditation, and even flower arranging. We aim to provide our participants with various therapies that meet their needs.

In the long term, my goal is to work with Professor Daisy Fancourt, Professor of Psychobiology and Epidemiology at University College London, to quantify the effect of music in hospices. In some studies, social prescription estimates save the NHS between £4 and £11 per patient. I genuinely believe this will become one of the most significant factors in addressing the Palliative Care poverty epidemic.

'The Academy taught me to be a communicator.'

How did your experience at the Academy prepare you for this work?

Open Academy was hugely beneficial in providing tangible experiences of working in community engagement settings. I collaborated with leading facilitators and experienced inspirational workshops, including Wigmore Hall's 'Music for Life' project.

More broadly, the Academy taught me to be a communicator. I spent years exploring music through many lenses, not just technically but in a filmic way. It's so important that we don't simply present the music, but know it so intimately that we become free from it.

What else are you currently working on?

I have a multitude of loves and different pursuits, which often makes my freelance life slightly chaotic! My weeks revolve around accompanying opera singers in recitals and competitions, accompanying singing lessons at the Academy, musical directing shows, coaching acting through song and leading community music projects. At the minute, I'm collaborating on a new concert series exploring the relationship between Architecture and Music. Variety is the thing I love most about the job!

'The breadth of opportunities offered here is unique.'

What were your highlights at the Academy?

The breadth of opportunities offered here is unique. A personal highlight was performing at Wigmore Hall for the Academy's Song Circle Gala. Stepping onto the stage and seeing my family smile was extraordinary. I was humbled to be a Sir Elton John Global Exchange Scholar, studying at the National Conservatoire of Music and Dance in Paris with Susan Manoff, who I've admired for a long time.

I played in Masterclasses for Christian Gerhaher, Angelika Kirchschlager, Florian Boesch and Dame Sarah Connolly, among others. The most remarkable experience was stepping into piano lessons with Joseph Middleton and Malcolm Martineau, who I grew up listening to – that was unfathomable.

It was the first institution where I was never told, "'You can't do this."'

What does the Academy mean to you?

A huge amount. My audition was during the final weeks of my mum's illness. The last time I saw my mum smile was when I shared the news that I received an offer from the Academy. I sincerely believe that in that moment, she felt she could be released from this life, knowing that I was fulfilling the childhood dreams she encouraged.

Musically, it was the first institution where I was never told, 'You can't do this'. Tutors supported me tremendously, encouraging me even when the impostor syndrome felt overwhelming! The Academy enabled me to do more than I ever imagined. Music in Hospices is only possible because of the Academy. My skills as a music facilitator, a musical director, a vocal coach and a repetiteur – a broad range of skills I never realised I had – were honed here.

Do you have any advice for graduating students?

Find meaningful work that energises your heart, mind and body. Be open to exploring everything, even if it isn't the path you or your teacher anticipated. The joy of being a musician is that the breadth of work is so expansive – don't be afraid to explore it!

Investing time in personal interests and curating a personal life you love will keep you grounded and at ease. Your performances will remain fulfilling, and your happiness will not be dependent on their success. Always remember, we are not the sum of our art.