'Like Narnia': the healing power of music

·2-min read

A young woman dying of cancer wanted music to soothe her in the final moments of life.

So a harpist went to her bedside at a Brisbane hospital, where she and her family were preparing for the end.

"She wanted to be played to the other side," Peter Breen tells AAP.

Mr Breen curates the Stairwell Project, a Queensland charity that organises musical performances in hospitals to calm and distract patients and staff.

"It's like Narnia. Patients go into another place, they feel less anxious," he said.

Mr Breen, an occasional trombonist, came up with the idea while working as a radiographer at the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital, where he discovered a stairwell had the ideal acoustics for live music.

He founded the project in 2015, and has since attracted a roster of classically trained harpists, flautists, guitarists, pianists and singers to play everything from Bach to Bob Dylan at three city hospitals.

It is one of many arts organisations featured at this week's National Rural Health Conference in Brisbane, where hundreds of professionals will gather for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Mr Breen said musicians continued to play in the stairwell that inspired the project in an effort to cheer healthcare workers.

"When we play, the smiles from surgeons and staff members are incredibly uplifting," he said.

A study published in the international journal Arts and Health last year found the project's performances promoted calmer environments and stronger staff relationships in cancer wards.

"Everyone talks quieter, people act calmer, people don't bite each other's heads off, it's like a chill pill," one worker told the Griffith University researchers.

The Stairwell musicians will be joined at the conference by the Queensland Ballet, Dance for Parkinson's and roving performers.

Deadly Weavers founder Felicity Chapman, a Wiradjuri businesswoman who used traditional craft to rehabilitate after a brain aneurysm, will also feature alongside other Indigenous artists.

National Rural Health Alliance chief executive Gabrielle O'Kane said the conference program recognises the long-established connection between health and the arts.

Delegates will even benefit from a drumming workshop.

"It gives them an opportunity to really belt it out," Dr O'Kane said.

The gathering's theme "bridging the social distance" plays on a well-worn pandemic term to focus on the innovation required in rural health, where isolation and geographical distance are barriers.

Speakers will present on subjects including climate change and health, access to abortion in rural areas, training and retention of doctors, and the use of telehealth and technology.

"In rural health you have to do a lot more collaborating and a lot more innovating because the resources are scarcer," Dr O'Kane said.

"Rural people have to be resourceful. You've got to be on your toes and prepared for anything."

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