John Miles © Maisie Hill

Creating a songbook for Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School

Composer and multi-instrumentalist, John K Miles, introduces his ongoing project with City of London Sinfonia for children and young people with mental health issues.

In March 2015, I was invited to lead a creative music project for City of London Sinfonia (CLS) at Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School, which teaches and supports children with mental health issues resident at two London psychiatric hospitals: Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham and Maudsley Hospital in Camberwell. The initial project took place at the Bethlem site and although I had previously led projects in schools, hospices, prisons, homeless centres, special schools and youth clubs, this was a new context for me and I was very much looking forward to it.

The project was for a group of eight Primary/Middle students. It ran for four sessions and took place in two main settings: a classroom and the school’s main foyer, which is like a small-scale school hall with a piano. Each session lasted from 40 minutes to an hour and included some one-to-one work and some whole group work. All sessions were supported by staff and were, by necessity, fluid and responsive to the needs of the participants.

Bethlem Royal Hospital (photo courtesy of Bethlem Museum of the Mind)
Bethlem Royal Hospital (photo courtesy of Bethlem Museum of the Mind)

I try to approach each new composition and performance project with an open mind, ready to respond to what I find. An important part of this discovery process is to create a safe, fun and equitable space where every participant feels like they can make a contribution. This can take myriad forms including playing games, singing songs, clapping, drumming or simply talking.

Knowing that the final concert would include a wonderful string quartet from CLS, I chose to start with some songs that would work well with bespoke string arrangements. The staff at Bethlem and Maudsley are amazingly supportive and their willingness to join in and model collaboration was a crucial bridge to positive participation for the students. It broke the ice and established the beginnings of group cohesion and purpose for the project.

We followed the songs with some creative work using percussion patterns. I often draw on the rich component parts of traditional rhythms and grooves, due to their immediate connectivity and flexibility for a range of creative musical applications, including classical development, improvisation and songwriting. Drumming is also an accessible and direct way into musical non-verbal communication through call and response.

A participatory orchestral commission with Luton Music Service, Orchestras Live and CLS © Chris Lennon
A participatory orchestral commission with Luton Music Service, Orchestras Live and CLS © Chris Lennon

Over the next couple of sessions, we made an instrumental piece together with classroom instruments and wrote a song. I took the work home after each session and developed the material by adding harmonies, editing words, extending sections and creating a structure and arrangement for the string quartet. For me, collaborative composition projects are a balance between the ideas and skills of participants and the extension of those ideas through the professional input of the leader and musicians. The joy and magic of collaboration is often that everybody is able to contribute ideas and emotions regardless of experience or technique. The work is as much about an expression of the human condition as about professional craft and when those two elements come together, it can be electric.

We also made some individual miniature compositions with students who the staff thought might particularly benefit from the work. One participant, whose facial muscles were markedly contorted with physical tension, particularly inspired me. As soon as she played music, her face completely relaxed as if her brain had created a bypass to the root cause of the tension. It was the most striking (positive) physical contrast directly caused through music-making that I have ever seen.

Once the new music was created, two members of the string quartet joined us for the final rehearsal. For a few students, it was the first time they’d heard a professional classical musician play. The effect of an instrument played in close proximity with a beautiful sound and technique cannot be underestimated. It can speak (without words) of craft, dedication and beauty and also directly to the soul. There is immense value when that aesthetic is added into a creative collaboration because it can elevate the collective vision and aspirations of the group.

The final sharing of the work was to parents, friends and staff with a combination of learned songs, a new group instrumental piece and a new group song, supported by the professional CLS string quartet. The quartet in turn played two short pieces of repertoire as part of the concert programme.

It was wonderful to see the impact of music on the students’ confidence and ability to work in a group. Sometimes, the positive effects were marked and striking and, sometimes, they were subtle. For some, it was simply taking part and joining in; for others, it was extending their skills with solo moments or significant creative contributions. In the end, the ownership was shared because we’d all been a part of it and presented the work as a collective.

Developing material during a songwriting project with CLS at St Joseph
Developing material during a songwriting project with CLS at St Joseph’s Hospice, Hackney

This first project was followed by two more in 2016 and 2017, focussing on two separate groups of Primary/Middle and Adolescent students. These two groups shared some material and came together for the final performances. Through the three projects, we began to build a bank of new songs and arrangements for young people and string quartet. It seemed to make sense to begin creating an accessible legacy songbook and audio resource for continued practical music-making and listening in the future.

Since then, funds have been successfully raised by the brilliant CLS team for 18 new projects over the next three years. There are also lots of exciting ideas for collaborating across sites, linking into the CLS seasonal programme and potentially creating a permanent audio and songbook legacy at the hospital museum.

It’s been a pleasure and a privilege working at Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School. The staff and young people have been an inspiration and it’s a joy to witness the tangible effects of the work come to life. The positive changes to personal confidence, teamwork, cohesion and behaviour have been marked alongside some truly wonderful creativity and memorable, moving performances.

Header photo: John K Miles © Maisie Hill

Due to safeguarding issues, it has not been possible to show images of Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School students.

About the author

John K Miles has composed numerous scores for film and television and written prolifically for theatre, jazz groups, world music ensembles and the classical concert hall.

Concert commissions include On Golden Cap written for the opening of the Olympic Sailing in 2012, The Choice written to open the 2014 Bath International Music Festival and Carnival Suite written for the City of London Sinfonia and Children’s Ensemble, published by Charanga and Music Sales in 2015. His latest work, The Wish, was premiered by the City of London Sinfonia in 2017 and is due to go on tour in 2018.

Commissioned by Orchestras Live and The Mix (Luton Music Hub), The Wish was conceived as a brand new Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and developed by John K Miles and specialist music leader, Claire Henry

John has led myriad composition projects and workshops for many leading arts organisations including the London Philharmonic Orchestra, City of London Sinfonia, ENO, Britten Sinfonia, the Roundhouse, Sinfonia Viva and New Dimensions. He is a visiting professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.


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