In a truly uplifting story, David Johns discovers how Noah Bear and an amazing group of singers, called Singing Medicine, are bringing joy and hope to hundreds of sick children and their families in Birmingham and around the country
Meet Noah Bear. He may be small, but he’s very special. He was conceived by Singing Medicine, an inspiring local group of professional and amateur singers who visit children in hospital, and then imagined and created by Joanna Harrison, the brilliant animator behind The Snowman. As well as being great to cuddle, Noah also plays the choir’s signature song, Music Inside, when his jacket is pressed, and the hope is that every sick child in Birmingham Children’s Hospital should have their own Noah – providing comfort and encouraging them to sing and play.
Singing Medicine has visited the hospital weekly for 16 years to sing with children and help combat feelings of isolation, as well as supporting improvement to patients’ mental health and wellbeing. The current pandemic has placed restrictions on hospital visits and the team have had to implement a new digital approach to keep their much-needed support in place. Interactive videos have allowed the team to keep engaging with the children as well as increasing the reach of their work beyond the West Midlands. Across the country children can sing and play with Noah Bear engaging in his series of short films and lullabies.
Rebecca Ledgard heads Singing Medicine and is director of education for Ex Cathedra, the Birmingham-based leading British choir and music ensemble. “There are 21 singers in the Singing Medicine team and in normal times eight at any one time would go in pairs from ward to ward at the children’s hospital, singing to the children in every ward,” explained Rebecca.
“Depending on how they are, they interact with us and will tell us what they’d like us to sing and will join in as it becomes not just about the music but also playing and lifting their spirits. Parents appreciate it too and will get involved. We have had instances where we have grown so close to children that in the most serious and saddest cases we have been asked to sing so that our music is the last thing they hear before life support is switched off. It becomes very emotional for everyone but we know that in that ultimate moment we are able to offer help and solace through music.”
Singing Medicine was formed from Ex Cathedra’s Singing Playgrounds project for primary schools. “One of Ex Cathedra’s choir, Sally Spencer, who was involved in Singing Playgrounds was, and still is, a nurse at Birmingham Children’s Hospital,” said Rebecca. “She said, ‘The children I work with need this too!’. We began to explore how we could include the children in the hospital in the Symphony Hall Singing Playgrounds workshops and soon decided actually we should create a special project where we took the singing play to them in their hospital beds.”
BEHIND THE SCENES
Prior to the pandemic, each child session in the hospital’s 20-plus wards would last around 20 minutes. Rebecca explained that the team does a lot of research and behind the scenes work to find out what each child likes and what parents and nurses believe is appropriate for them in their situation. “We think singing and singing-play is really important. Sally describes singing in Ex Cathedra choir as her own singing medicine. We are all really passionate that all children should play and develop through singing and have the chance to enjoy singing,” said Rebecca.
Health experts agree that singing reduces cortisol (stress) and feel-good hormones are released. It’s the body’s natural pain killer and all areas of the brain are stimulated. The deeper breathing required in singing helps healing and fights infection. “When we started Singing Medicine we just wanted not to leave out children in hospital from our education and participation work, but we soon realised how enormously beneficial it was for them for being distracted, soothed and calmed, or stimulated and having fun, and being able to use their imaginations and make decisions through the singing games we create,” said Rebecca. “Singing to the children not only brings joy to them, but also to us. There’s a real buzz in the team when we go to the hospital. It’s that feeling that we are doing something that really means something.
“One of the last sessions before lockdown was a little boy sat in his leather jacket on his bed. He was very sick. He was from Syria and neither of us spoke each other’s language, although I attempted thank you at the end. We played a singing game and played some percussion and we laughed together too. He grinned and waved when we left. This is just one of many special moments which mean so much.”
CREATING A BEAR
The idea of creating Noah Bear came after one of Singing Medicine’s charitable funders pulled out at a week’s notice as a result of the economic squeeze caused by Covid-19. Rebecca said: “For years we dreamed of having a singing teddy to leave with the children when we left them but this seemed an impossibility. During lockdown Joanna Harrison imagined and drew us a bear. Vada Recording Studios helped us with the recording to put inside and Louis Kennedy offered to make the singing bear in support of Singing Medicine. Noah Bear has been a real boost to us – we have also felt the impact of these difficult times – and he has inspired our creativity. He now even has his own YouTube playlist of singing games for little children.”
And Rebecca added: “You know what would be my dream? For someone to buy 500 Noah Bears to gift to every child in the hospital. Wouldn’t that be wonderful!”
• Singing Medicine is a project delivered by Ex Cathedra which started in 2004.
• Since it began, the team has delivered more than 40,000 Singing Medicine sessions at bedsides to sick children in hospitals.
• It has won an NHS Health and Social Care Award and most recently an award from the Royal Society for Public Health for outstanding contribution to the field of arts and health.
• As well as its home hospital, Birmingham Children’s Hospital, the project has been delivered at Great Ormond Street, John Radcliffe, Warwick and Heartlands hospitals, as well as travelling to Auckland and Singapore.
• Ex Cathedra is based in Birmingham and is a leading UK choir. Founded by artistic director Jeffrey Skidmore OBE, it is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary.