Emergency Workers Relieve Stress by Making Music

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Emergency Workers Relieve Stress by Making Music

Jill Shevlin, Trustee, Music for All


BLSO members attend a socially distanced Summer Workshop, 2021. Photo: Twitter.com/BlueLightSymph.

In the U.K., almost half the workdays lost to ill health are related to stress, depression, and anxiety. In 2019-20, that number totaled 17.9 million days (per U.K. Health and Safety Executive), with each person missing 21.6 workdays per year—more days missed than for any other condition. Among emergency service (ES) workers, this figure is even higher, with the recent added pressure of the pandemic potentially leading to historically high stress rates.

In the U.K. organization Mind’s most recent Blue Light Report, 69% of emergency responders shared that their mental health has deteriorated as a result of the pandemic; ambulance staff were the likeliest to say this, at 77%. Additionally, 87% of respondents said not being able to see friends or family during the pandemic has impacted on their mental health, while 69% said that passing coronavirus to their loved ones is a significant worry or concern. Mind also found that emergency workers held strong concerns about burnout and PTSD. Clearly, there is a demand among ES workers for tailored, preventative support that empowers them to seek and receive help.

I have been fortunate to learn about and support the growing music-therapy movement in my capacity as a Music for All trustee. Music for All is a U.K. charity that promotes the benefits of music and supports disadvantaged music initiatives. The therapeutic powers of music-making are well known to us; Trustee Simon Saunders recently published a blog, “Feeling Stressed – Try Making Music,” which shares scientific research on how making music can reduce some of the changes that take place in the human body when experiencing physical and emotional stress. One study showed that just one hour of recreational music-making was enough to significantly reduce genetic markers for induced stress among non-musicians.

This is where the Blue Light Symphony Orchestra (BLSO) comes in. Established in 2016 by Sebastian Valentine, or “Seb” for short (Royal College of Music graduate and now Police Detective Sergeant), BLSO organizes regular music workshops for ES musicians. During each full-day workshop, they work on a particular piece of music and build to a performance at the end of the day. The group meets three times a year, with Sebastian conducting and organizing alongside a small team of trustees. As their resources are limited, Music for All recently awarded BLSO a grant enabling them to hire large percussion instruments—such as the timpani drums used recently for a Peter Grimes workshop.

As many as 50 ES workers from across the Blue Light services participate in the workshops, usually held in central London. All emergency service workers are welcome, though the majority attending tend to be from the police, ambulance, and military. For ES workers, ever-changing shift schedules make it difficult to impossible to join a regular orchestra. BLSO’s workshop format allows each member to prepare and practice for the day on their own time. Workshops usually take place on a Sunday to ensure as many as possible can attend. Being able to take part in the workshops has encouraged many BLSO members to return to music full time.

As Seb says, “Playing with BLSO, emergency service musicians can learn and perform in an environment where everyone understands the stresses and traumas of their daily working life.” Experiences are often shared during break times, and this shared understanding means each musician can concentrate on enjoying their experience. As all musicians know, playing music requires focus. Other concerns tend to fall away when you start to play, which provides the BLSO members with a brief respite from their day-to-day.

In addition to playing music, BLSO is on a mission to support the mental welfare of its members. Seb takes time to select the music for each workshop, ensuring it plays to the group’s strengths. In May 2021, during their first workshop after many of England’s Covid restrictions were lifted, they worked on Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. There was a palpable relief in the group, as the opportunity to spend a day with musicians with similar pandemic work experiences contributed to members’ ability to enjoy the day. Their next workshop will focus on Symphony No. 2 by Brahms, so that the several trombone and tuba members will have the opportunity to feature prominently.

Each workshop gathering is different. Members attend sessions when they can, and attendees play both symphonies and concertos. The latter allows the orchestra to build their performance around a proficient musician—something that tends to raise everyone’s performance. In July, they played Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Concerto with a talented former Guildhall student, now a social worker, as soloist. This encouraged everyone to, as Seb puts it, “up their game.”

Though all orchestra members appreciate the stress-relieving qualities of making music, many would not have returned to music without the specific structure of the BLSO workshops. With their next workshop planned for October/November 2021, Sebastian is already setting his sights on 2022, planning an international event featuring a choir and jazz band in addition to the orchestra.

As we all face the uncertainties and anxieties brought on by the pandemic, let’s remember that the strain is particularly keenly felt by our emergency service workers. BLSO provides a template for us to attend to the needs of those we so often look to for support—and the relief its members feel is testament to the deep joy we feel when we make space for collaborative music-making.


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