Making music and building community in Saint-Vincent Hospital

Jesse Stewart and Julia Churchill get ready to start the jam session at Saint-Vincent Hospital. Photo: Peter Robb

Once a month at Saint-Vincent Hospital a group of people get together to make music.

All the musicians use wheelchairs to get around and they have a diverse range of physical and cognitive impairments. But the smiles on their faces are worth the price of admission.

For Tracy Luciani, the arts and wellness specialist at Saint-Vincent Hospital, part of Bruyère Continuing Care, it’s much more than just making a joyful noise.

“Patients are often passive recipients of music and some of the other activities we do here, and that is ok. This gives them the opportunity to be active agents. For somebody who has very limited mobility to be able to create music is powerful.”

Jesse Stewart knows all about that kind of power. The Carleton University professor, jazz percussionist, sound artist and inveterate builder of instruments big and small, leads the monthly gathering in a room on the second floor of the hospital that is an exercise in community making through music.

Jesse Stewart prepares for some music-making in Saint-Vincent Hospital. Photo: Peter Robb

This is not a formal, funded program, although a routine is building. Stewart and jazz vocalist Julia Churchill donate their time in these sessions, but the rewards are profound for all involved.

Scotty Mayhew can testify to that. He gets around in an electric wheelchair, but he hasn’t missed a single session.

“I always liked banging on things but I’m not musical. But I love this. It gives me joy and I am doing something. There is a community. We are doing something together.”

Mayhew likes the fact that he gets to express himself. “It gets you thinking,” he said. Mayhew has even built his own shaker out of a plastic tube and plastic beads that he brings to these jam sessions.

On this day Mayhew was also playing a cymbal.

The music making flowed from an earlier project started by Carleton University’s READI (Research Education Accessibility Design Initiative) program which involves graduate students in engineering, industrial design and the arts in solving accessibility issues. Stewart, through his role at Carleton, got involved in a READI project at Saint-Vincent.

Once that finished, he offered to keep coming back.

“Jesse was interested in giving back to the community,” Luciani said. “I’ve talked to him for years about coming in and giving workshops. So he started to come monthly. For patients who are bed-bound, he visits them individually.”

The hospital offers weekly concerts given by local performers and the patients love those, she said.

“This was something a little different that I thought would be of interest to particular patients here who either don’t participate in a lot of activities or have been here for five, 10, 15 or more years. I thought it would be great for them to be part of something that could grow.”

Jesse and Julia have both worked with Tracy before on a project called Music Matters in which they worked with caregivers and loved ones dealing with dementia.

In this current effort, the group of 15 is working towards a concert at Saint-Vincent in the spring when they will perform for other patients, visitors, staff and family.

Luciani, given her training and experience, knows that something positive is happening but it is expensive to measure.

“Something happens in the brain and body when you create music,” she said.

She knows it, she sees it.

“Just to get out of their rooms and meet other people” is positive. “They come from different floors and not everyone knew each other before. Now they are creating a community. For me that is really important.

“If they want to socialize when I’m not here, now they know other people in the building and they can meet and express themselves. It’s important because they are often forgotten. They aren’t often included because of physical and cognitive disabilities.

“And we have a lot of fun.”

As an example, Tracy said she has been working with one member of the group for the past four years who may never leave the hospital.

Until the group formed to make music, he rarely left his room. “Just getting him out to meet other people is raising his sense of self worth and self esteem. It’s sweet to see him with Jesse. He’s even starting to offer Jesse feedback and give him some advice on how to make the instruments more accessible.”

In the session ARTSFILE attended, Stewart set up an array of bowls, and sticks and shakers all attached to a computer that guides them via a motion sensing app on a tablet, all which has been set up by Stewart. Then the participants rolled in, picked up their instrument of choice and quick as a one and a two and a three, everyone was making music. Julia arrived and she added vocals to the mix.

Luciani says that people walking down the hallway have stopped and listened and watched the magic happen. She believes the sessions also lighten the mood on the floor and not just in this room.

Churchill has experience with community based art making. She sees what is happening at Saint-Vincent as an extension of that.

“Ultimately it’s people creating something together who wouldn’t normally be doing it.”

She finds that kind of collaboration interesting.

“It is very improvisational and you don’t know what is going to come out of it. It is a really interesting way to work.”

Stewart believes that “music — and the arts in general— has the power to change lives and, indeed, to change the world. I know this because of the transformative effect the arts have had on my own life, and on the lives of many of my friends.”

He said that in his view the arts encourage different ways of looking at, listening to, and being in the world.

“But the arts do more than that. Sometimes, they serve as a cautionary tale, showing us glimpses of dystopian futures that we need to work to avoid. They can also help us envision — and sometimes even enact — a different, better world than the one in which we live. Personally, I would like to live in a world that is as broadly accessible and inclusive as possible. A world that respects and celebrates differences of various kinds.

“For me, the arts are a means to that end. This is one of the reasons why I love to participate in inclusive community music initiatives” like the one he is doing at Saint Vincent Hospital.

“My main interest is in making music and doing it as broadly and inclusively as possible. It is edifying for me on that level.

“In one of the rooms I’m going to, there is a woman who can move two fingers and her eyes. For me the question is how can we make music together that will be fun for her and me. I learn from these kinds of opportunities to collaborate.”

From Stewart’s perspective this is music-based community making and it fits into the range of projects he is doing across the city and beyond.

Julia Churchill, on the other hand, is in the process of developing a business plan that will incorporate music-based community making projects. Right now that’s in the future.

Meanwhile, the two of them will come back month after month to prepare a concert. After everyone takes a bow, Stewart says, he intends to stay in touch even though his work may take him in different directions.

“I try to avoid the situation where I parachute in and do something and take off and they never see me again. That doesn’t build community.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.