Pure magic

Sue Shortland-Webb

Two and a half years ago, I met Lesa who was sitting alone in the local Art Centre Café. Most people will not readily approach Lesa. She uses an electric wheelchair with difficulty and drinks through a straw, unable to use her hands, which shake rather too much. That day, she was one of very few people I felt comfortable to talk to. I was on the next table, very frightened because I was too ill to get home. An accident 2½ years before had left me in severe pain. And it was escalating at a distressing rate.

Soon afterwards, Lesa introduced me to a group of her friends who were performing for 'Musical Connections', a music group in Birmingham run by 'Sound it Out Community Music'. Their aim is to make music accessible to people normally excluded from mainstream music. I joined and was also encouraged to attend courses in teaching music to both children and vulnerable groups. The accident had left me unable to communicate well except through music. I asked a very capable folk musician - someone I was training with - to help me set up another music group to cajole other socially excluded people out of the 'safety' of their homes to the arts centre. The hard work was in getting most of them there. Once 'there' most of them were hooked. Lesa was one of those people.

Almost immediately, 2 people stood out because of their frustration in not being physically able to do what their minds were quite capable of understanding. Lesa was a friend by now and had been looking increasingly despondent over the previous 6 months or so. She didn't smile at all. Several of her friends were worried that she had 'given up', due to how her illness was limiting her. Chris, another group member, was becoming ever more angry with himself. And because the group had been set up with 'inclusiveness' in mind, it was important to find a way around it.

Fortuitously, 'Sound it Out' were offering Soundbeam training, which afforded me the immediate opportunity to start a separate 'Soundbeam group' for Chris and Lesa. This was with the help of Paul Carroll, a very able member of the 'Sound it Out' Team who had also attended the training. 'Sound it Out' kindly agreed to loan us their own Soundbeam equipment and found us a space to use.

The first session took place at the Midlands Arts Centre. Within moments, Lesa's face lit up and she beamed for the whole hour. Chris visibly relaxed and was lost for words. Even Chris would admit this to be a rare event! Meanwhile, Paul and myself were both delighted to see, first hand, how two lives were changed in an instant. Both Chris and Lesa were empowered by discovering that they COULD play a musical instrument, after all!

And those smiles haven't faded; no matter how long we've been together to play our music. Paul and myself have been able to provide accompaniment on guitar and violin from time to time, creating a musical experience able to 'stretch' us all! To drive the pieces further, we also occasionally use a drum machine, which can be started and stopped with a switch. We have personalized several of the Soundbeam presets including 'Bristol Blues' to include guitar chords on the switches. We have also created entirely new set-ups including a 'Klezmer' set-up, this style of music being a true passion of mine and a 'Bach' set-up for harpsichord and organ, at Chris's request.

Recently, Chris and Lesa jointly decided to perform Sound beam in a concert, even though I wasn't available. If that isn't a sign of progress, I don't know what is! (Although I was a little disappointed not to be involved!) Afterwards, Chris thanked us by writing about his experience:

"For most of us I suspect there are very few moments in life, which we can genuinely look back on and call magical. The truth of the matter is that on the evening of July 21st 2005 I had the experience of taking part in a concert for the first time in my life as a member of the cast so to speak and I can say that for me it was indeed pure magic.

My pleasure during the concert was brought about by playing the Soundbeam … It is refreshing to realise that I am one among a privileged few people who have had an opportunity to play a Soundbeam. The possibility of doing anything spontaneously is not often given to a disabled person … The instrument has the capacity to let me draw music from it simply by waving my arms around in a semi controlled manner and thus forget for a few blissful minutes the physical disability which has taken up far too much space in my life and the lives of others like me. I was far from alone on stage that night but I think it's true to say that for a short time we were both free of our wheelchairs and the other pressures of life, which are imposed on us all from time to time.

We would welcome help and support in any way others may feel able to provide it, be it physical, financial or indeed anywhere in-between. It is true to say we are presently short of many things except the enthusiasm to bring the Soundbeam to as many people as possible."