Updated: Oct 27, 2020

Health:Pitch Italy perform in a care home near Turin
Health:Pitch Italy perform in a care home near Turin. L-R Francesca Lanza, Laura Vattano, Ivanna Speranza

The Woman who spoke for the first time in months is the first of many glorious stories the Health:Pitch soprano Francesca Lanza shared after a series of concerts in Italian care homes near her home.

Yes, please be reassured – this is a good news story. And, don’t we all need to hear and read more of those at the moment.

“There was another lady, who looked like she really was not interested while we plugged in cables and set up our keyboard, which is super rubbish,” says Francesca. “Then when Ivanna started to sing this lady’s face broke into a big smile and her eyes came alive. She started singing really softly, saying, ‘Brava, Brava, Brava, over and over again.’ That is Italian for very good. It was a great beginning.”

A new chapter for Health:Pitch

That’s what these concerts are, on many levels - a fresh beginning. In Italian care homes visits, albeit adhering to strict social distancing rules, are allowed once more. Unable to reunite with her Health:Pitch performers in the UK, Francesca has found a new way to take live performance to people who have been starved of contact for months. Meet Health:Pitch Italy; a new chapter for Health:Pitch and another example of the team finding creative ways to use the operatic voice to connect.

Francesca is performing with her regular colleagues: Italian-Argentinian soprano Ivanna Speranza and Laura Vattano playing piano – which is in fact the ‘super rubbish’ keyboard Francesca described, but from which Laura conjures music that lifts spirits for care home residents and their carers alike.

And, after just three live performances the verdict from audience members, care home staff and the three performers is unanimous. The sound of the human voice singing opera reaches deep into people’s hearts and souls, awakening joy.

Singing not speaking

“One of the care homes, for people with dementia, had a garden, and I was able to walk around it while singing,” says Francecsa. “One man sitting reading a book did not want to talk, but when I came near him singing, he looked at me. He moved in rhythm to the music. Language was not his way to connect, but with the sound of my operatic voice we were able to communicate in a different way.”

“That is why we do this.”

“Lockdown has been really hard on these people,” explains Francesca. “The exchange with them is incredibly powerful. That is why we do this.”

Of course digital connections help while face-to-face contact is impossible but performing live brings the power of personal interactions, always the essence of Health:Pitch’s work. When the trio perform in care home gardens, they can see people able to enjoy the performance on their balconies as the music floats up to them.

The 95-year-old poet performs

During and after their performances, Francesca, Ivana and Laura talk to their audience, share stories and, perhaps most importantly, they listen. Which is how they met the 95-year-old poet. His life has been rich in stories; he spent two years between 1943 and 1945 hiding in the mountains with partisans. Now he writes a poem every day. Laura had an idea – she would improvise a piano accompaniment for him while he took over the microphone to share his poetry with fellow residents.

“It was amazingly powerful,” says Francesca. “Both for the other residents and for us. With these performances we can talk to people, we can get to know them, and we can receive art from them in return. You cannot get that in a normal concert hall.”

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  • SianLewis

The Health:Pitch team at work

This was a key point of discussion during last week’s Health:Pitch team zoom meeting.

And, quite honestly, we are still working on the answer.

The significant new study by the Culture Health & Wellbeing Alliance, ‘How creativity and culture are supporting shielding and vulnerable people home during Covid-19', offers valuable (and timely) insight.

The Alliance canvassed 48 organisations, including Health:Pitch partner Celebrating Age Wiltshire, responsible for 50 projects across England and Wales, with a reach of almost 100,000 people, about issues and successes during lockdown.

The findings are clear – inclusive arts are a lifeline to the most vulnerable; quite simply making people feel less alone, less isolated, less forgotten.

Another thing is clear - the challenges faced are considerable.

1/A lack of funding,

2/A lack of value placed on the energy and time requirements involved in creating high-quality culture and creativity to support wellbeing,

3/A lack of joined-up thinking and action from the leaders in health and social care, with the power to drive funding and infrastructure improvements.

4/ The online approach adopted by many projects to reach out to people remotely does not work for the many vulnerable people who are not comfortable online, or who do not have access to the internet.

This last point echoes some of the feedback for our recent music theatre production The Soprano. The eight episodes aired on our YouTube channel. Faced with a global situation none of us had worked in (or even lived through) before, we chose a 'virtual production' to reach people in their homes, in care environments and in many countries.

Francesca Lanza, who starred in The Soprano, celebrating the end of filming

The delighted comments from those who enjoyed The Soprano sparked joy in the whole Health:Pitch team.

However, we learnt a valuable lesson along the way. Many of our most vulnerable potential viewers are wary of YouTube or lack the technology to enjoy online arts.

How can we reach those people?

We don’t yet have all the answers, but this guides us:

We will stay true to our Health:Pitch vision to create and share the highest quality arts with those whose minds and lives can be hardest to reach.

We will focus on the quality of each personal connection, not the quantity, in terms of audience size or scope.

The Alliance, which works for a 'healthy world powered by (our) creativity and imagination, found that the organisations surveyed used online, post and phone to reach people.

And, we are now looking into those options until our performers can visit vulnerable people once more.

This may even see our Health:Pitch performers phoning one person at a time, to sing opera and to chat.

Because one thing we do know for certain is that although government shielding advice eased on August 1st, many vulnerable people still are – or feel - isolated. We are working hard to find them and to find the best ways to reach them - one, by one.

Can you help us?

Are there are vulnerable, isolated people in your care who would benefit from wellbeing support through high-quality arts?

Please get in touch so that we can work together to reach them.

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  • SianLewis

At Health:Pitch, we know that the arts boost mental and physical health and wellbeing.

To be in the room, when people laugh and sing along with the Health:Pitch performers is to witness the positive power of music and song to lift hearts and minds.

We’ve seen the smiles.

Yes, this knowledge is intuitive, but it is also rooted in science.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) brief on arts sets out the health benefits of the arts. “A recently published WHO Health Evidence Network synthesis report (The role of the arts in improving health and wellbeing in the WHO European Region) demonstrates how arts interventions can help improve health and wellbeing, contribute to the prevention of a variety of mental and physical illnesses and support in the treatment or management of a range of acute and chronic conditions arising across the life-course.”

Now more than ever, as more people struggle with anxiety, depression and isolation during the global pandemic, they need the arts in their lives.

This is one of many findings from the UK's most extensive study of its kind The COVID Social Study, Understanding the Psychological and Social Impact of the Pandemic. Led by Dr Daisy Fancourt, associate professor in behavioural science and health University College London, The COVID Social Study uses a mix of online questionnaires and phone interviews to harness the experiences of more than 85,000 people every week, who share their views on the effects of COVID-19.

* Do you want to join the COVID Social Study? You can sign up here.

Experts across the health and care sectors agree. On 16th July, an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) seminar live-streamed on YouTube, hosted by Arts & Health South West, focused on how the arts can support health and wellbeing, especially for those who are – or who feel – the most marginalised. The wide-ranging discussion highlighted the need to find new ways to reach people with the arts at a time when physical access is limited.

Feel a part of the performance

Sitting front row to watch a show is smile-inducing; to feel part of the fun is a more significant boost to health and wellbeing than simply being in the audience. We see and hear this in care environments, and our experience is backed by research from The Understanding Society, UK household longitudinal study.

The study found clear evidence that the arts are good for positive mental health, stating, “People who engaged in the arts frequently had lower levels of mental distress and higher levels of mental functioning and life satisfaction than those who engaged infrequently.”

What’s more, their results showed, active involvement is even better for health and wellbeing.

“Although any engagement with the arts is beneficial, it seems that being actively creative ourselves – whether that be in a group such as a choir, or at home, crafting – is better for us than watching someone else’s creativity at the theatre or concert hall, for example.”

This is the Health:Pitch approach: take the arts to those who will most benefit from the positive mental and physical boost - and bring them into the fun. They enjoy the performance and become a part of it too.

This week care homes began to cautiously re-open their doors to visitors. However, many vulnerable people remain isolated and desperately in need of the health-boosting effects of the arts.

Our challenge is to take the arts into care environments, at a time when the current situation prevents live performances.

How can we make that happen? That is the million-dollar question to which we seek an answer every day.

And, how can we make people feel part of the performance? Creative thinking helps, as does technology.

With our digital performance, The Soprano, we involved our audience (albeit virtually) in the music; we invited viewers to join soprano Francesca Lanza in her operatic warm-up voice exercises; we encouraged people to sing along.

All episodes of The Soprano are still available to enjoy for free on our YouTube channel. Can you help us to share it with as many people as possible?

Our focus is now to work with our partners in health and social care to find new ways to bring music to everyone, everywhere.

Together, we want to keep people singing. We've read the studies. We’ve seen the smiles. We know it works.

Can you help us? We’d love to hear from you.

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