Muso Baby Virtual! A therapist’s perspective

In this guest post Rachel Swanick, Musician and Music Therapist, adds to Elaine Bates’ recent Muso Baby Virtual! blog, with some thoughts and reflections on the move to online delivery.

Muso Baby is part of a social prescribing programme run by the Manchester Museum. In April 2020, we celebrated our first birthday and with so many changes happening to social, cultural and therapeutic interactions due to Covid virus, it feels like an important time to reflect on this journey.

Muso Baby is based on some key principles of music therapy: the main one being the use of music to promote positive attachment through affect attunement. Affect attunement is about the parent noticing the small behaviours of the baby – be that their vocalisations, the movement of their body or even their breathing and crying – and responding in an appropriate way. When things are going well in the home, the parent will respond to these interactions on a subconscious level by changing their voices, moving their body and making eye contact. These signals help the baby understand that they are being heard and that their actions have a reaction. By adding music to the interactions between parent and infant, we are giving the relationship a foundation and a boundary that can be used to promote development, communication and other relationships for the baby. The music helps the parent and baby understand each other more.


As a music therapist, I work reflectively and when working face to face, I can change my music (and therefore how I communicate) quickly to meet the needs of the parents and babies that I work with. This means that I can answer the baby’s vocalisations or add in their name in order to create and maintain a connection, for example. All of these interactions, however small, show the parent and baby that they are important, they have been seen and heard, and they give hope of a way to be together even when things are difficult. Since lockdown started in the UK, I have been unable to lead face to face sessions and we have now moved online, providing weekly virtual chats and music sessions for parents and under 5s. This is a big shift in my practice – moving from face to face work with natural parent-infant interactions on a small scale (we usually have no more than 6 families in each session) to an online format with more generic music and discussion often reaching almost 150 people around the globe.


One of the most noticeable changes is in audience: not only are many more people engaging with Muso Baby Virtual but, even though my sessions are ‘live’, I can’t see the children singing and dancing along and so my music has lost it’s adaptability. This is difficult for me as a practitioner and I have wondered what it is like for the families watching. Another interesting theme in the move online has been the number of people who want to engage. When working at the museum, we would often recruit around 12 families, with less than half of that attending the sessions. Online, there are usually around 50 families watching the live sessions, and then over the week, the number of views will go up to between 150 and 200. As humans, we have a need to interact with others in an interpersonal way, but I wonder if these numbers of viewers will continue after lockdown has finished; will ‘online’ become the new way we access services, whether educational, social, or healthcare?


This all leads me to think about the reason we started this project: social prescribing. At the start, we wanted to enable families who would normally have access to mental health support or who would not normally come to museum, to have the opportunity to be involved. Muso Baby is about providing support for those who need it most as well as offering families something a little different. Being part of a social prescribing project, Muso Baby is also about encouraging parents to find the help that they need – social prescribing is about taking responsibility for your own wellbeing. With the move to online work, this sense of responsibility feels more present as the audience grows.


In recent years, the culture of mental health and wellbeing has become a much bigger business. As mental health and cultural professionals, we often talk about Social Prescribing and Arts on Prescription but I am seeing little evidence of healthcare professionals using these tools. Of course, in some cases clinical interventions will be a priority for client care, however, we should be actively promoting and using the practitioners out there for building resilience, promoting wellbeing and encouraging positive mental health through culture and the arts.


During lockdown, more and more people are actively engaging in crafts, exercise, nature and music to feel better and give them a focus in these uncertain times. It is interesting that this has been a natural response for communities and individuals looking to make sense of what is happening. Arts and wellbeing professionals will speak of using creativity to raise resilience levels but what is the link between creating something and feeling emotionally well? I think it is about reframing and recreating a situation; if you have a good sense of resilience, then you are able to change negative thinking in to positive action. This is what happens when you do something creative; you are changing the materials in front you in to something else – something that matters to you.


With this mind, as we approach the ‘New Normal’, arts therapists and practitioners have a responsibility to promote the use of culture, nature and exercise in scaffolding the mental health of our society. Let’s actively shout about Social Prescribing and Arts on Prescription, and The Five Ways to Wellbeing; let’s make the meetings with healthcare professionals, and hopefully soon, we can open the doors on our cultural spaces as pioneering places of health and wellbeing.


Kids in Museums have used Muso Baby as a case study to inspire organisations looking to support the wellbeing of families and children and also features on their ‘10 ways to improve your wellbeing‘ list.

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