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A woman standing next to a harp speaks to an elderly hospital patient

Marketing director Shoël Stadlen reflects on a fascinating day in Britten Sinfonia’s collaboration with Cambridge University Hospitals Arts team.

Each month a different Britten Sinfonia musician spends a day at Addenbrooke’s Hospital playing a series of pop-up performances in different spaces and for different groups of people as part of our collaboration with the brilliant Cambridge University Hospitals Arts team.

This month I joined harpist Rosanna Rolton, Rosie O’Donovan from CUH Arts and Britten Sinfonia producer Lauren Hill to see the project in action for the first time.

A harp is not the most easily transported of instruments, but it is stunning both to see and to hear, and Rosanna cheerfully rolled it along corridors and squeezed into lifts, unpacking it and packing it up again throughout the day, taking it to eight waiting rooms and wards across the hospital and, by our count, being listened to by 507 people.

I was fascinated by the factors Rosanna, Rosie and Lauren were having to take into account in the different spaces.

In the Oncology Outpatients waiting room, people were waiting for long periods of time to see doctors who have to give patients the time they need. Waiting to be called for your appointment can be a stressful experience for people due to receive the results of scans and blood tests and inevitably thinking ahead to the implications of different scenarios.

“It’s so soothing. Really calming.”
Patient Oncology Outpatients waiting room

Rosanna’s arpeggios, chords and plucked melodies were beautiful and soothing, but to make sure the balance was right and she wasn’t making it difficult for patients to hear their names being called, she set herself up in an unobtrusive corner and checked with Rosie that the volume wasn’t too loud. The nature of the harp’s unique sound and Rosie’s repertoire – Greensleeves and the "Flower Duet" from Delibes’ Lakmé among other pieces – made it possible for patients to choose whether to give it their full attention or to treat it as soothing background music.

A receptionist beckoned us over and said “I love that we’ve got music back here”, while a number of patients came closer to listen. One of them said “How lovely, I’ll be annoyed if I’m called too early now” and another “It’s so soothing. Really calming.”

A woman playing the harp in a hospital foyer, with nurses watching on
“A boy of three or four said to his mother “More, more!” and an older girl did a heart-warming 180-degree pirouette and joyfully high-fived her physiotherapist.”

Rosanna finished her set and moved on to the Children’s Oncology Ward, a place that many people find difficult to see, but also one filled with wonderful children, parents, nurses and carers, all trying to make life as normal and as fun as possible. Here the harp was the centre of attention. I heard one boy ask his parent “What is THAT?” The nurses encouraged children to come out of their bays to watch and listen, and then they gathered around themselves. When Rosanna came to the end of "Morning" from Peer Gynt, a boy of about three or four said to his mother “More, more!” and an older girl did a heart-warming 180-degree pirouette and joyfully high-fived her physiotherapist who was standing behind her.

In the afternoon, Rosanna performed in several Medicine for the Elderly wards, with patients suffering from conditions including dementia and delirium, as well as other, less debilitating illnesses. One patient hummed along delightedly to the tunes she recognised, and at the end of a piece she got up and asked Rosanna questions about the harp – how do you play it and how old was it? Another said: “I’ve never had a personal performance before”.

Perhaps my favourite comment was from another elderly patient, who said with a mixture of delight and playfulness: “This made my stay in hospital worthwhile!"

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