Music and Healing

Annie Mawson, founder of the Sunbeams Music Trust, tells of some of the remarkable ways in which her music has helped people, and especially those with Alzheimer's and other mental health problems.


This article was first published in the Summer 2001 issue of Chrism. The author's profile below is from the same date

Annie Mawson, BA Hons, Cert.Ed., Dip Ed-Special (Music Therapy), was made Cumbria Woman of the Year in 2000. A Cumbrian farmer’s daughter, Annie played the piano at the age of five, was church organist at seven, and after twenty-three years teaching children with Special Needs, taught herself the Celtic harp. Since becoming a professional musician in 1994, Annie is equally at home in cathedrals or the humblest of sitting rooms, the Way of Peace International Conference in Belfast with the Dalai Lama or small isolated churches and village halls. She sang and provided workshops at the Lambeth Conference, and sang privately for the late Cardinal Basil Hume. She now combines her international career with running the charity she founded in 1992, the ‘Sunbeams Music Trust’, of which Mrs Eileen Carey is a patron. She has produced two CD’s: ‘Where Primroses Grow’ and ‘Angel Voices Ever Singing’, as well as an instrumental tape of reflective meditative music. Countless TV and radio broadcasts include an ITV documentary ‘The Secret Heart’, which featured Annie’s work with ‘the power of music to heal’.

© Guild of St Raphael

The Power of Music to Heal

Sunbeams ventures into a world where doors are closed, and with commitment and passion, tries to find the appropriate musical key to unlock a knowledge that is there from the very first heartbeat.’ This is the philosophy of Sunbeams Music Trust, the charity which I founded in 1992, to bring musical therapy and fun to people of all ages, with special needs, throughout Cumbria.

As old as David . . .

Let me take you back in time to Samuel. . . ‘When King Saul was seized with a deep melancholia, David took an harp and played it, and the melancholia departed.’

Beautiful words, ancient and modern alike, separated by three Millenia, but the message remains the same—the ‘power of music to heal’.

. . . as new as modern research

I believe that we can all be touched by the healing influence of sound, physically, emotionally, and spiritually . . . and I have living proof of the powerful transformative effects of music. The concept that vibration is the fundamental active force in the universe was understood from times of Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, and music was specifically developed for healing and achieving altered states of consciousness. But although the power of music to heal and to alleviate illness and distress has been recognised for centuries, it is only in the 20th Century that systematic research into the reasons for its efficacy has really begun. Its appropriateness as a therapy for people with mental health problems has since been well documented through time-based research, in U.S.A. since 1944, and by Juliette Alvin, the pioneer of Music Therapy in the U.K.

Powerful effects of music

Music Therapy is now a real and bona fide method of improving health and well-being, however difficult it is to measure the consequences of the ‘power of music to heal’. The longterm aim of any therapy is surely to overspill and generalize the effects into everyday life, never more so than with people with varying forms of dementia and Alzheimers, where the response is often so much more direct and immediate, and where time is of the essence. Great sensitivity is essential when the powerful effects of music can help to reaffirm identity, raise self-esteem, and give people with dementia, for example, a voice - literally.

A deep impact

By bypassing some of the functions necessary for decoding speech, music can make a deep impact on people for whom a verbally saturated environment can only add to confusion and further isolation. I think of the lady with such severe Alzheimers that she didn’t know her own name, or recognise her family, but who took hold of my Celtic harp the first time she saw it, and played it with a beautiful technique. Afterwards she said, very poignantly: ‘Well, I don’t remember why I know that I can do that’!

A language we can all experience

The doctors needed no further proof. The tears were falling, our hair stood on end, as we all knew we were witnessing something very profound and moving, encapsulating music as an expressive art, which speaks directly to the emotions. I believe Music is a language we can all experience, encompassing the infinite range of human emotions. I believe that Music can be a powerful tool for a person’s general development and self-transformation. It can open up channels of communication without the barriers of language. At Sunbeams, we aim to improve the quality of life and provide a unique, yet innate means of communication, however long it takes—even if all other strategies have failed. The use of Music to promote self-expression and communication can release people from personal inner conflicts—whether they be profoundly handicapped adults, verbalising for the first time; or elective mutes speaking after years of silence; or people with Alzheimers singing enthusiastically, after years of living in a twilight world of confusion. I firmly believe that there is Music inside us all—it just requires the right key to unlock it.

The Celtic Harp

‘CANTO ERGO SUM’ symbolizes my own philosophy—‘I sing, therefore I am’, and with my Celtic Harp and voice I endeavour to bring out the music which I believe is in everyone. The Celtic Harp, the clarsach, was described by the Irish poet, Owen Roe, as being powerful and glorious, pure and sublime, and I feel sure that it is no coincidence that it was this ancient instrument of the Bible which David used to beguile his very sheep. It is the beauty of the Celtic Harp which has led me to ancient spiritual sites such as Lindisfarne, Bradwell, Whithorn—all slightly inaccessible, all ‘on the edge’, and yet all ‘soaked’ in prayer by the Celtic Saints. Wonderful, windswept isolated powerhouses of prayer, where I feel the movement of the tides are linked to the cycle of the year, the seasons of life, and the highs and lows of our own experience. And where I can play my harp in total isolation, or surrounded by 5,000 people at pilgrimages, but always feel God’s presence through the power of music and the power of prayer.

A wide range of activities

It has sometimes been a lonely path, this healing ministry, which has caught me unawares, but now, my whole working life is devoted to my vision which is Sunbeams. Once regarded as ‘eccentric’ and ‘radical’, my work is now widely respected and well-known throughout Cumbria. A wide range of music therapy activities are undertaken, including group music therapy, recitals with groups, concerts by our lovely people, fundraising concerts by world-class performers, and one to one clinical musical therapy. We currently help about seven hundred people per month at a variety of venues such as hospitals, residential homes, day centres, hospices., and work in partnership with North Cumbria Health Action Zone in trying to tackle problems of ‘disadvantage, disability, disillusion, decay and dispiritedness’.

A moving performance

‘Disadvantage, disability, disillusion, decay, dispiritedness’—what despair is highlighted in such sad, sad words! But at Sunbeams we counter these with moments of sheer joy and trust, and fun and healing, and defy anyone, not to be moved and uplifted by one of our concerts, now regularly given by our dear friends with often very profound Special Needs. Thanks to Bishop Richard of Penrith, one of our patrons, we were invited to play at the Carlisle Diocesan Millenium Conference at Lancaster University. Twenty-six Sunbeams people sang their hearts out, played a miscellany of instruments, and danced on the stage at the Great Hall. They thrilled and entranced and moved the audience of more than four hundred clergy and lay people, to tumultuous applause. One delegate wrote in her church magazine:-

‘It was the first time I had seen Annie’s friends, and it was an unforgettable experience. They sang, danced and played with such pure joy and enthusiasm, that one felt lifted on a great surge of love. WONDERFUL! WONDERFUL!’

So many stories to tell

So why do I believe so passionately in the power of music to heal? It has manifested itself in so many many ways and through so many people.

Jonathan, my first person with Downs Syndrome, who has been my inspiration since 1978, as he sang every song, from every score of Gilbert and Sullivan, word and note perfect.

My Dancing Drum group of six young girls who played Celtic Harps, and took the Royal Festival Hall by storm in 1993 at the National Mencap Festival, pushing the barriers of Special Needs further and further away.

Even ‘punk rocker’ Ian who clamoured to be a Wise man in the Christmas Nativity, as long as he could break-dance down the aisle, wearing his golden frock!

The Hotel Conference where three hundred Muslim businessmen cried unashamedly as I sang Home Sweet Home—in Urdu (three times!).

Profoundly handicapped adults moving in time to the infectious music of an Irish band.

Joanie, an elective mute, who chose not to speak for eighteen years, but who moved audiences to tears with her pure mezzo-soprano singing voice.

Sixty-four year old Johnny, with severe language deprivation, who took six months to sing ‘Hello Annie’, but who is now the leading light in our Sunbeams concerts, with his rendition of ‘Danny Boy’.

The hospital patient, paralysed by a stroke, unable to speak, but still singing glorious operatic arias.

The terminally ill patients at the hospice who gain great sense of peace and serenity from listening to the harp—but not forgetting the great FUN from a good old sing-along!

The elderly frail people listening to world-class music which not only entertains, but is also a useful means for social interaction and reminiscence work.

The sixty-two year old man dancing the tango with the ninety year old lady, neither remembering their own names, but certainly remembering how to dance the tango—and even asking, ‘Why don’t they play Jealousy? Is it too salacious?!’

Singing to the bereft farmers of our own beloved Lake District on Easter Day, surrounded by Foot and Mouth disease, but sharing the great message of hope through the beautiful words of How Great Thou Art.

The eloquent, if slightly muddled, spontaneous speech of thanks after a Hospital concert—this would be unremarkable were it not for the fact that as an Alzheimer’s patient, the nurses had not heard him utter more than two words in the last five years. The music had unlocked his hitherto imprisoned faculties, and given him the power of expression once more.

Standing on ‘perceptive tiptoe’

There are many, many more wonderful Sunbeams stories—living proof of the ‘healing power of music’, which can unlock the strongest of defence mechanisms. And each time, it is like standing on ‘perceptive tip-toe’, trying to detect what is on the brink of being called into existence for the very first time. And always—it is very humbling, very moving, and very profound. I firmly believe, that if our lovely Sunbeams people are prepared to sing, and expose their vulnerability to others, then we should listen with respect and learning, in an atmosphere of love and enthusiasm, and full attention to their beauty, and the beauty of sound.

© Guild of St Raphael