June 5 2013

Harmonica Workshops, Mental Health Matters.

Mental Health Matters Harmonica Workshop

by Aidan Sheehan, Music Worker

The Mental Health Matters harmonica workshops took place between February and March over a five week period. There were ten workshops in total, five in each centre. Funding was also provided to purchase some harmonicas for the group, providing for the possibility of on-going learning.

I worked at two sites, one at the Talbot Hall in Kenfig Hill and the other at Nolton Church Hall in central Bridgend. Mental Health Matters works to support people with mental health needs. The end users joined with me to learn to play the harmonica. This series of exercises, on the face of it, appears to be simply an exercise in learning to play a musical instrument. In actuality it is an excellent way for the end-user to practice social and interpersonal skills, listening, thinking, considering options and carrying out specified tasks towards the achievement of positive, satisfying results. Using the harmonica and singing, moving, engaging in the workshops provides opportunities to enhance practical, cognitive and kinetic skills, focuses thinking and allows use of memory and imagination. It involves both team-working and using one’s own initiative as well as the more apparent learning to play, experiment with and create music.

At first, most people were a little reserved. I walked around introducing myself without being brash. Initially, most people didn’t engage with me. They did not know me so this is quite understandable. I spoke to the group leader (John) and following his advice I then set myself up in a corner of the room, placed some chairs in a circle, my guitar safely on a stand and a large bag of harmonicas on a chair. I then commenced playing, without any introduction.

From the first chord I could see several people watching and listening. Initially, this was mostly surreptitiously, usually glances from the corners of eyes but it was definite and noticeable. My music was gaining some attention and I could gauge peoples’ interest as within just a few minutes (with the encouragement and invitations of the group leader) several people had come up and were listening. I carried on playing, giving each new visitor to the corner a smile and nodding for them to sit down (I continued playing). Some did, some did not. The ones that stayed settled down and just listened. When I finished playing some applauded which gave me the opportunity to engage with them. When I spoke, some people made their excuses but others stayed and spoke with me. I gave a little light-hearted talk on harmonicas with a demonstration which showed the user-friendly nature of the instrument and my user-friendly nature too. From experience I know that people with a fragile mental state don’t want anything that will cause them distress. Harmonicas are an excellent tool to use in such situations. I understand from my experience with various learning groups how things that are previously unknown or people who are relative strangers can be a perceived threat. It was important for me to show that everything was safe and might just be good fun too and within ten minutes I had most of the group playing a scale. Later I had them play some well-known little ditties such as “Twinkle Little Star” and “Frere Jacque”. I ensured they knew these tunes were not ‘Baby songs’ especially as the client group consisted of adults. I did this by telling them the history of each of the piece. These stories are interesting and prompted other people to share anecdotes and conversation points with the group. We then played some musical games which involved listening a responses, taking turns and thinking. We then learned some breathing techniques (presented as games) and then turned one of these games into a very well-known Blues piece (“Classic Chicago Blues Riff No.1”).

Before I left, I asked who had known I was coming in (no one had). I then asked who had expected to learn to play tunes on the harmonica (no one had). I then enquired how well they thought they had done (this became a discussion. Most thought they had done really well). I then asked them just how they had learned and, again, a variety of answers from those who wished to share their opinions. In reality it was just to get them engaging, considering, thanking and relating to each other and myself.

Overall, as each of the sessions progressed, people improved in all ways. They shared humorous anecdotes, expressed their feelings and shared more than just their music. Conversations sprang up, everyone learned a good deal of practical, musical tips and methods in both the initial and each of the subsequent sessions. They also enhanced their social, personal, cognitive and kinetic skills too and worked as a team. People’s opinions were valued and everyone was treated as adults and equals.

By the final workshops in each centre we had singing groups, people were given choices of songs, they were dancing, singing, playing and it was more like a concert than a learning group. But of course they were learning all the time, from both myself and each other. They were also learning about themselves by process of thinking and conversing. They acquired useful musical skills which enhances confidence and commands respect. As the old saying goes “Music is a language that we can all understand”. Often, people with mental health issues find communication difficult – the process as we carried it out assists better communication.

The end users (and staff and helpers too) thoroughly enjoyed the workshops right from the initial lesson. Several others have enjoyed the entertainment ‘at a distance’ and that is fine too. The workshops are designed to be educationally entertaining, inclusive, supportive and learner-focused. John (group leader) said in his opinion these were the most effective, successful workshops he has ever seen at the two centres. He expressed the wish that I might return and deliver some more.

In actuality, not only did the end-users learn the harmonica, they also sang, moved and were creative in so many ways… and they opened up, shared thoughts, experiences, feelings… and they had fun. Several people attending the drop-in centres can now play actual tunes on the harmonica. Ask them! I see the smiles on their faces; hear their music and therefore their success is valid, tangible and measurable.