Musical Melbourne Award winner shines during COVID-19

29 June 2020

Do you know a community champion who has shown great leadership, kindness and generosity during the COVID-19 pandemic? Nominate them for a Melbourne Award by 7 August.

The Melbourne Awards are the City of Melbourne’s highest accolade, celebrating inspirational people who dedicate their time and energy to create positive change.

This year’s program has been adjusted to have a special focus on Melburnians going above and beyond to make a difference amid the challenges of COVID-19.

We recognised the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Harmony with Health program with a Melbourne Award in 2018. Dr Emma O’Brien OAM has developed the innovative music therapy program over more than 20 years.

Dr O’Brien’s poignant and joyful role has led her to compose songs with people at the end of their lives, create an opera to chronicle patient journeys, and work with people who can’t speak, but they can sing.

She also works with medical students to help them understand the positive impact of the arts on patients, staff members, and families, and integrate this knowledge into their practice.

‘Once people see music therapy in action – the benefit the patients get and the ripple effect – they’re kind of hooked,’ Dr O’Brien said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospital’s popular music therapy program has been more in-demand than ever, helping to relieve stress and isolation among staff and patients.

The team has been working within strict safety protocols and has developed publication about safe singing practices, working with respiratory specialists.

Musicians standing in a hallway, holding instruments

Musicians spreading physically-distanced joy in a hospital hallway

‘We are finding ways to keep the music going – delivering songwriting workshops via telehealth and doing a lot of singing in hallways, at a safe distance. It has been great to see people smiling and bopping along,’ Dr O’Brien said.

‘One of the big challenges of COVID-19 is the frightening thought of patients being alone in hospital while visitation is restricted. We are using live music via telehealth as one way to keep patients connected with their loved ones.

‘We also brought together 200 staff to create a Scrub Choir video, and we’re working together to write three original songs. One is called Gratitude.’

Dr O’Brien looks forward to continuing sharing music therapy knowledge and models of practice within Australia and beyond, once restrictions ease.

One of her key international partnerships is with the Osaka City University Hospital, forged during a City of Melbourne business mission to Osaka, which is one of our sister cities.

The aim of the partnership is to research music and aged care, and links between music and genetics, including examining how learning an instrument at a young age can improve brain function.

Dr O’Brien is also working with colleagues in Norway around music and refugee health and wellbeing.

Closer to home, the former opera singer also looks forward to making more music with her two children – who have inherited her talents. She jokingly refers to the group as The Family O’Brien Von Trapp.

‘The arts are transformative, and they have never been more important. Investing in the arts delivers a high return for community and individual wellbeing,’ Dr O’Brien said.

‘My biggest vision is that one day art and music will be widely understood as having a positive effect on our wellbeing, accepted as normal practice and taught across all platforms, across the world.’

To find out more about the Melbourne Awards and meet more previous recipients, visit Melbourne Awards.

Three tips for music therapy at home

The arts can be a great way to nurture your wellbeing while we all spend more time indoors due to COVID-19. Here are three of Dr Emma O’Brien’s tips for simple music activities to do at home.

1. Listen closely

Music can be much more than simply background noise to the ‘movies’ of our lives. Take the time to be mindful, sit still and really listen to a piece of music.

Then listen to a genre of music you wouldn’t usually listen to – our brains love trying something new.  If you find some a new style that you like, share it with a friend.

2. Make up a song

Songwriting is a wonderful way to express yourself. Don’t focus on perfection – just have a go. Your song doesn’t have to be complex or deep and meaningful. It’s okay to be silly.

You could even get your family involved with a spontaneous musical, singing silly, improvised songs around the house.

If you like using technology, or want to play with instrumental loops, there are plenty of apps and simple computer programs at your fingertips.

3. Learn an instrument

If you’ve always wanted to learn an instrument, now might be the perfect time. The ukulele could be a great choice, as it’s a cheap and relatively simple instrument suitable for all ages.

When restrictions allow, you could even get together with some friends for a jam or join a local choir.

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