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The comfort of the Arts

- Deborah Minors

The arts evoke emotion. How do we harness them for wellbeing? 

Mike McCallum, student musician, entertains young patients in the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre ©

Tsholofelo Ahithile (father), Lindiwe Dumakude (mother), Sibusiso Dumakude (child patient) and Mike McCallum (Student musician from the Wits School of Music at the Oncology Day Clinic at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre).

Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” said Mexican poet, Cesar A. Cruz. Equally important is the environment in which the arts are experienced – and there are few places less hospitable to the arts than a hospital.

The introduction of live music at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre (WDGMC) by Wits students was therefore fairly unusual.

This unique cross-disciplinary initiative began in 2015 and brought together patients, carers and nurses in the paediatric and geriatric wards at the hospital with fourth-year Bachelor of Music (BMus)  students from Wits.

The Music in Hospitals project aimed to positively change this clinical space and people’s experiences of being in hospital through live music. The project formed part of the BMus Community Music course, integrated into the curriculum as ‘service learning’.

“We want our students to learn how musicians can shift their role from individual musicianship to collaboration and providing a community service,” says Dr Susan Harrop-Allin, Senior Lecturer in Wits Music who pioneered the inclusion of Community Music in the BMus curriculum. 

“These performances are carefully planned, sensitive to patients’ and nurses’ needs, with ethical considerations an important component. Students are supervised in the hospital and required to critically reflect on their practice.” 

Humanising a hospital

The WDGMC is a referral hospital, meaning patients are critically or terminally ill or require specialised care. An understated and quiet mood prevails in this highly stressful environment, so musical performances by musicians was a decidedly non-medical approach.

“It was so different in a hospital, so unexpected, and it took quite a while for us to get our heads around it. The first few times it was quite strange,” says Dr Harriet Etheredge, an ethicist at the WDGMC.

“And then you start seeing the impact. How unexpected the benefits and such a big difference to morale. It was something to break up the day and the nurses said it made them feel happier.”    

Therapy-aware community music

The Music in Hospital project, subsequently published inthe Muziki Journal of Music Research in Africa in 2018, suggested that live music performances may be able to humanise hospital spaces. So profound were the benefits of the project that Michael McCallum, a director of Community of Music Makers South Africa, subsequently initiated a similar project at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

“Engaging in community music can empower patients and elevate morale and wellbeing,” says McCallum. “We say that our work is ‘therapy-aware’ rather than being strictly therapeutic.”

There is a distinction between music therapy (in psychotherapy) and Community Music (in Music Education), says Harrop-Allin. This project is ‘arts in health’, where creative arts practices are used to transform people’s in-hospital experiences. 

Arts therapy 

Arts therapy per se is a distinct discipline. Drama therapy, for example, enables a person to explore their inner experience actively and experientially.

“The theoretical foundation of drama therapy lies in drama, theatre, psychology, psychotherapy, anthropology play, and interactive and creative processes,” explains Warren Nebe, Clinical Arts Therapies Programme Coordinator in the Wits School of Arts.

“You cannot practise as an arts therapist unless you are a fully registered arts therapist in one of the discipline specific areas,” says Nebe, who is a registered arts therapist in South Africa.  

The arts therapies are a combination of disciplines that arose in the 1960s and became distinct professions in the late 1970/80s, says Nebe. In South Africa, arts therapies were incorporated into the Health Professions Council of South Africa.

There are only two such accredited Master of Arts programmes in the country – one in Drama Therapy at Drama for Life (DFL) at Wits and one in Music Therapy at the University of Pretoria. DFL will introduce Dance Therapy in 2021. 


Nebe curated a symposium, Meeting South Africa’s Mental Health Crisis: Toward a Transformed Arts Therapies, Applied Arts and Arts Research Response, in May 2019. The symposium explored what role the arts can play in transforming the landscape of self-care and mental health for South Africa.

Refiloe Lepere, a drama therapist at DFL, delivered the keynote address, Playmaking as an ethic of care and anger in the age of mental health care crisis – Postcards: Bodily Preserves.

Nebe says, “All people are creative, all people are born with an innate ability to play. The arts therapy value lies in the relationship between client, therapist and medium. Arts therapies are for everyone, not just artists.”  

Mindfulness and compassion 

Dr Lucy Draper-Clarke, a Lecturer at DFL, has a PhD in Mindfulness from the Wits School of Education.   

“Mindfulness means training the mind to stay in the present,” says Draper-Clarke. “Most of our difficulties come from anticipating a future or reminiscing and regretting the past – as if the present isn’t quite good enough.”

Mindfulness is the practice of attuning our minds so that we can more deeply understand how we respond to what we’re exposed to. It invokes the ‘embodied mind’, which recognises the ‘gut feeling’ of warning or the hot flush of anger – messages that come from the ’belly brain’ or ‘heart brain’, as Draper-Clarke calls them. 

“The advantage of mindfulness is that you can experience those feelings but not react to them unconsciously. In that millisecond of feeling, you have a choice: you can choose a more skilful response. A lot of mindfulness is about witnessing – that quality of experiencing something without getting carried away by it.”

Mindfulness lends itself naturally to the arts, either practising them or experiencing them. Painting, for example, demands absorption, while poetry unites the conceptual and creative emotional brain to elicit  ‘felt’ sense more evocative than prose, says Draper-Clarke.

Draper-Clarke’s current research focuses on compassion and engagement. She asks, “Does mindfulness create a more engaged compassionate society?” Certainly the ‘infodemic’ in which Covid-19 immerses us requires compassion.

Calming the Covid-19 chaos 

If despite the pandemic ‘the show must go’ then it has done so in part through the arts online. Catia De Castro, a Wits Journalism student, wrote how “art has been my saving grace during lockdown”.

“Apart from its creation as a coping mechanism, art has also helped those who don’t create it. During the Great Depression of 1929, jazz music helped lift the spirits of Americans,” she writes, citing Studies in Popular Culture, which describes how  jazz was used to maintain emotional stability during the Great Depression.

“Personally, the arts have helped me with my anxiety,” says De Castro. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that the arts can ‘heal’ mental health, but it can certainly help someone by offering a sense of escapism and comfort.”

  • Deborah Minors is Senior Communications Officer for Wits University.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 10th issue, themed: #Mood how our mental health and wellbeing are impacted by the socio-economic, political, psychological, legal, ethical, cultural and technological interpretations of our world.