Transforming Communities

Maz O’Connor – Musical Notes from Lewisham Hospital

Live Music Now works in hospitals across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Our musicians take live music to public and clinical spaces; in waiting areas, on wards and at bedsides. The work has an animating, positive impact on hospitals, changing the experience of staying in, working in and visiting them; bringing relief from anxiety and loneliness.

Maz O’Connor at University Hospital Lewisham- Maple Ward and Beech Ward (stroke wards)

Live Music Now musician Maz O’Connor performed on stroke wards at Lewisham Hospital, in a residency in April-June 2023. She played three songs in each bay unless an interaction or requests gave her a reason to play more. Here she describes some of the musical experiences she shared with staff and patients, connecting with and responding to their individual and shared musical identities.

A Song From Home

S had a tube to help him breathe and communicates using a paper sheet of letters.

He points to each letter one by one to make words. He got very emotional when I started singing. Using his finger keyboard, he asked if I had anything Australian. I played him the sea shanty ‘South Australia’. He got very emotional then, properly crying. I stayed with him for a little while, singing another 2-3 songs to calm him down. He gave me the thumbs up and a smile when I left.

The next week, his wife B was there and she said he had told her all about me. He loves music and is from Australia, that’s why he got emotional at the song last week. I sang it again and he got emotional again, but this time B was there to hold his hand. Then he asked for some Crowded House- I said I would learn some, but after my two weeks away, S wasn’t in the ward anymore.

Some respite from being in hospital

T was a little hesitant and grumpy the first week- fed up of being in hospital.

The next week, his wife was there and she was very into the music, especially the trad stuff. She clapped along to ‘Wild Rover’. This warmed T up a bit. He asked for ‘Dirty Old Town’. I played it and his foot started tapping and he was singing along. He also likes The Jam and music from the 80s- we had a good chat about it.

A welcome visitor

I sang Frank Sinatra and Elvis for B who is very elderly and I know now likes these two especially. She got quite upset when I was leaving—she said she doesn’t have any visitors and she is very afraid. I held her hand for a while and she said that music makes her feel better. I said I would come and see her again at the end of my session. Happily, when I went back, she was smiling and waving and feeling much better!

‘Thank you for entertaining us!’

D is quite young – maybe in his forties. He is of Jamaican heritage and loves Bob Marley. I sang ‘Three Little Birds’ and I heard someone behind me joining in. Then he was whooping and clicking. I turned around and saw it was a young male nurse. He had been sitting at a computer. He got up and held his hands above his head, started dancing and clicking and swinging his hips and singing along in a much too high octave…! The dancing got bigger and bigger- he was properly shaking his behind and shimmying his shoulders up and down. The other nurses came in to video us singing together while he danced. He said ‘thank you for entertaining us!’

Building a Connection

A lot to say about S! He was pretty young, fifty or so, and sitting up in bed in his own clothes. His sister was visiting him.

I thought he hated me the first week as he didn’t want any of my repertoire—he is very fussy about music and only wanted his favourite artists. And his favourite artist is…David Bowie (I don’t know a single song and they’re very hard to play on guitar and secretly I don’t really like Bowie!!!)

I quickly realised that music is His Thing. He asked me to test him about Bowie: ‘ask me anything’. He knows what he likes and isn’t interested in anything else. He also loves Bob Dylan, and luckily I know a few by him. I sang ‘Don’t Think Twice’ which I’d usually thing too melancholic for a hospital setting, but S loves it. He ‘sang’ along (spoke the words) and his sister said, ‘see, there’s nothing wrong with your brain!!’ He set me some ‘homework’ to learn something from Bowie, and said it could be from ‘Hunky Dory’ which is the folkiest of the albums.

The next week, his mum and other sister were there.

He said ‘have you done your homework?’

I sang ‘Kooks’ (the one with the least modulations in it!!!) and he told me about how Bowie had written it the day his son Duncan was born and how he played a gig that night and played it live on the BBC.

Then he told me to learn Neil Young and Roxy Music for next week. His family made some cracks- ‘why do you come and see him, he’s awful?!’

I offered him some other songs but he didn’t want any of them. Eventually we settled on more Bob Dylan, and I said I could play ‘Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ if I could use the lyrics. His sister held up the phone. I played and sang it and S talked along – he knew most of the lyrics and stopped at certain lines to comment on how incredible they are – ‘how do you come up with that? What a genius? That always makes me cry!’ I was very moved by it, I felt like we’d dived into another world together. An amazing piece of art, and we shared it together. We talked at the end about how amazing it is, how young Dylan was when he wrote it, but also what the lyrics mean. Nuclear war? Covid? Climate crisis? Has the hard rain fallen yet? S said it means that if you neglect what matters in life – looking after others, music, poetry, love- then bad things will happen. Your life will have no meaning.

I decided I actually really appreciate him pushing me! And we’re actually connecting over art; I’m not just performing to him/ at him.

S brings up a challenge that I find in this work sometimes—the wide range of ages you can find in a hospital ward. Having material that works for 85-year-olds and 45-year-olds is hard. And then of course people have different tastes and make requests, and I don’t like disappointing people. However it can be quite a lot of work to learn 4-5 new songs each week, not knowing if the patients will even still be there!

G was in bay one for a few weeks with T and S, and quietly enjoyed the music and was always appreciative. When I went back after two weeks away, he was gone from the bay and I assumed he’d gone home. As I was leaving my final session on Beech Ward, the nurse Elizabeth said ‘Have you seen G? He’s been asking for you!’ I didn’t know he had been moved to a side room.

I went to see him and asked him what he’d like and he said ‘Dirty Old Town! Dirty Old Town!’ I sat next to his bed and played the song for him. He started to cry—he said ‘I love that song’. I said, ‘Let me play something else to cheer you up, what would you like?’ and he said, ‘Anything. All music is lovely.’ So I played ‘The Wild Rover’ and he sang along. He was very happy and thanked me for coming to see him.

Singing more and more each week

C was in a side room. When I first met him he had tubes in his nose and could barely open his eyes. He couldn’t speak. I sat next to his bed and played ‘Stand by Me’ and immediately a smile came on his face. I played ‘Three Little Birds’ and ‘What a Wonderful World’ and he kept smiling and I even saw his mouth move a little to the words.

Week by week, I went to see C, and he sang more and more each week. It was amazing, because he could barely say ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’.

Week five, I asked him what sort of music he liked, and we got as far as that his favourite band is American—he told me he is from America—and that it was two men. I told the nurses to keep asking him through the week, but unfortunately we never got anywhere with that! Still, it was cool that he had made so much progress that we could talk about music.

The final week, his relative A was there and she was excited to have music. She said C loves music, especially gospel. She didn’t know the name of his favourite band either!

I sang the same three songs I have sung every week. Something amazing happened- in the final chorus of ‘Stand by Me’, C sang out, loud and clear, in a high octave. ‘Stand by me, oh, stand by me!’ His sister started crying- it really was an amazing moment. He also was conducting in the air and smiling and closing his eyes as though he was really into the music. It was lovely! As I left, he said ‘thank you’, which was cool, because it’s the first time he managed to get the words out. I really feel like we had special times together and that the music made a massive difference to him.

A’s Birthday

A is a lovely smiley man. Week five was A’s birthday so I sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and we did hip hop hooray and all the bay and staff joined in. Then I sang ‘Stand by me’ and he was smiling and singing along. I asked him what else he wanted and he asked for Bob Marley and I sang ‘Three Little Birds’ which he and the nurse loved. P across the bay piped up then with stories of when he’d been security at venues in London in the 70s and 80s- The Who, Queen, Marley and The Beatles. So I sang ‘Eight Days a Week’ and they all joined in.

I sang ‘Dirty old town’ for W, then The Jam as he’d asked for it the week before. He was happy and gave me a ‘quiz’ about The Beatles which he said I’d failed!!

Then the nurse asked for ‘Scarborough Fair’ as it was his favourite song. He was a young guy- I was surprised by that choice! He sang along for the whole thing then said he loves singing, singing is his happy place. I spent a good half hour in that bay which was lovely. Then the physio T asked me how I’d been booked and said he wanted more music in the ward as it really helps lift spirits.

A Hen Party atmosphere on the ward!

L is quite young – she looked in her forties. I first met her my penultimate week at Lewisham Hospital. She was surrounded by six female friends- it was quite the crowd! They were excited when they saw my guitar. They asked for ‘Sweet Caroline’. I didn’t know it but I got the lyrics up on my phone and asked them to promise to help me sing it! They all sang along – it was pretty raucous, like a hen party in the ward! The other patients were laughing along and it felt like it really helped bring the bay together.

A spiritual experience

C was a quiet, dignified old lady, who was always sitting in her chair when I came in. Her face lights up when she sees the guitar. One week, she had a visitor who had brought a bible. It turned out that C, her visitor and R in the bed opposite were all religious women. So I sang ‘Stand by Me’, ‘Three Little Birds’ and ‘What a Wonderful World’ and they all sang along beautifully. Eyes closed, hands clapping sometimes. I finished with ‘Amazing Grace’ and they sang beautifully. A nurse came in. She got the lyrics on her phone and sang along. R was saying ‘I love it I love it’ and at the end they were saying ‘praise be to god’ and ‘glory to god’. As I was leaving I said ‘do you want the radio back on?’ and C’s visitor said ‘No, we will sit together in the glory of god’! It was lovely that the music meant so much to them—it was a spiritual experience.

Musical connection through shared heritage

I first met T when he was in a side room and very ill—lying down and not able to talk much. He told me he liked rock and roll and the closest I had in my repertoire was early Beatles, which he enjoyed. Then I asked him where he was from and he said Connemara in Galway. I had been there just recently so we had a good little chat about that. Then I sang ‘The Galway Shawl’ which he enjoyed. I could tell he had a bit of a cheeky sense of humour.

The next week, he had the curtains closed- he still wasn’t feeling very well.

My penultimate week, he was out of bed and sitting up, which was great! When he saw me, he said ‘do you know any songs in Gaelic?’. He is Irish speaking- from the Gaeltacht. Luckily, I do know a lullaby in Irish! So I sang ‘Bog Braon’ and we talked about the lyrics and what they mean as they’re a little bit strange – calling the baby an ‘old man’ because they look similar. Had a little bit of a laugh about how limited my Irish is: I said ‘How are you’ and ‘I live in London’ and he joked that everyone can say that. He told me how to say kiss my arse… It felt like a lovely little bit of cultural connection through music and Gaeilge.

Then he said ‘the fella next to me is into his music’. So I talked to C for a bit- he plays guitar and bass and keys! He loves gothic rock- he told me it’s symphonic and dramatic and his favourite bands are a Finnish band and a Dutch band I can’t remember the name of. Two operatic women front the bands. I sang Van Morrison and he sang along and he mimed playing guitar.

The final week, T had a visitor- a female relative. She said she had heard lots about me. I told her it was my last week and she recorded me singing on her phone for him to listen to later. We sang ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and then ‘The Wild Rover’ and everyone joined in. We had a chat about music and how you can’t tell what people are into (C liking symphonic rock and T liking rock and roll). I left an instrumental section in ‘Wild Rover’ and said to C we need a guitar solo. He mimed along, pretending to shred! It was lovely.

Chatting about rock stars

R was in his sixties and sitting up- he was waiting to go home and had been ready to go for weeks, he was very bored but needed the sign off from the social worker. W was similar age but still lying down and hooked up to drips. He could chat though, and he had a cheeky smile. Both really loved music. The first week, R followed me into the next bay to listen to me again.

W requested ‘Dirty Old Town’ for the next week. The next week, I played ‘Dirty Old Town’ and he was really appreciative. It was a good one to learn because it was popular with a few other patients, too, as I found out! Then I played the Bowie song I had learned for S, and R had stories because he’s seen Bowie 6-7 times in concert. We talked about rock stars and who’s lived a long time and why. That led us to the Beatles and who are favourite ones are and whether Paul McCartney will live forever. They made jokes about this bay being ‘the last chance saloon’ and ‘heaven’s waiting room’. I stayed quite a long time in there chatting cos R and W wanted to chat. They’re both quite cheeky and had questions for me and what it’s like being a musician.

W asked for some Rolling Stones for next week—the following week I played ‘Waiting on a Friend’ and he was really appreciative again.

Remembering V’s husband

I only met V one week. She was really quite elderly. I sang Frank Sinatra and we talked a little about her favourite songs. I noticed she had photos up on her wall so I asked her about them. She said that was her husband H and he was a lovely man. He has been in the Navy and they were married 40 years but he had died 20 years before. So I sang ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love with You’ and she sang along pointing to H’s photo. It was gorgeous!


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