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The rainbow has become a symbol of people reaching out to each other from their homes during lockdown

The art of wellbeing

While the RCM campus has been closed, along with music and performance venues around the country, organisations and individuals have been making huge efforts online to continue to provide solace and entertainment through the arts. Here, Dr Rosie Perkins, researcher at the Centre for Performance Science, writes about how and why the arts are so important during times of crisis, and what culture, and music specifically, can offer to the health and wellbeing of society at large.

As soon as lockdown began, people responded through the arts. My phone was buzzing with lockdown-related song arrangements. My children were asking to paint rainbows for our front window. The Thursday night ‘Clap for our Carers’ was soon accompanied by lively saucepan percussion and, for some fortunate residents, the voices of professional opera singers.

It was clear immediately that, in a time of absolute crisis, the arts would help us get through. They would meet our fundamental need for social connection, at a time when our normal means of connection are far from possible. They would give us a creative outlet for our emotions, at a time when we are grappling with uncertainty and loss. And they would allow us to experience beauty and creativity, at a time when so much of our activity is restricted.

None of this surprised me. For the past decade, my work at the RCM has focused on the effects of arts and culture on society. This is a field often referred to as ‘arts-in-health’, a rapidly expanding area of interest in how the arts are, and can be, used to support physical and mental health.

Such is the interest in this field that the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a scoping review in 2019 concluding that: 'results from over 3000 studies identified a major role for the arts in the prevention of ill health, promotion of health, and management and treatment of illness across the lifespan’.

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Our award-winning research in the Centre for Performance Science, a partnership between the RCM and Imperial College London, has formed part of this evidence base. Drawing on methods from the social and medical sciences, our research focuses on how the arts, and particularly music, can support and enhance mental health.

Our work with older adults, for example, indicates that frequent engagement with arts activities and venues, particularly museums, galleries and exhibitions, may be a protective factor against loneliness. Among adults with experience of mental and emotional distress, we found that group drumming programmes can improve symptoms of depression, social resilience and mental wellbeing, as well as reduce stress hormones and inflammation.

And our research with women experiencing moderate-severe symptoms of postnatal depression showed that participating in a ten-week group singing programme with their baby significantly increased the speed of their recovery.

So we know, both instinctively and through research evidence, that the arts are good for our health. But what arts activities are people doing, and able to do, during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Our recent work has turned attention towards the role of the arts in public health; in other words, how the general public use and engage with the arts and what that means for their health. On the day that schools closed for the majority of children in the UK, we launched the HEartS Engagement survey, which has collected information from over 9,300 adults across the country.

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The early results tell us that 94% have engaged in some form of arts during lockdown. 74% of this engagement was online, and 67% was conducted with other people. Of those who engaged in the arts, the majority reported that their arts activities help them feel connected to others.

The next stage of our analyses will establish whether there are links between the arts engagement that people report and key health measures such as depression, social connectedness and loneliness, and we will also track a group of people to see how their arts engagement changes with the easing of lockdown.

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And what about those of us who work in the arts? The crisis has, without doubt, had a huge impact on us all. Cultural venues have been shut. Instrumental and academic music lessons were moved online and will, at least in part, remain there, and many of the rehearsals, groups or concerts that we normally enjoy are reduced, on hold or cancelled.

In parallel with our public health work, the HEartS Professional survey is investigating the impact of COVID-19 on those working in the arts and cultural sector. With over 800 arts professionals to date, preliminary findings indicate that over half consider themselves to be in financial hardship as a result of the crisis. The majority have experienced drastic changes to their work and are more anxious and lonelier than before the pandemic. Alongside serious concerns for both their short- and long-term futures, however, respondents also commented on this as a time of creativity, entrepreneurship and new possibilities. Artists are as committed to continuing to make art as the public are to engage with it.

For that, institutions such as the RCM are vital. We know that music is more essential than ever. Educating musicians who can respond to such rapidly changing social contexts is more important than ever. And connecting with and expanding our audiences is integral to our survival.

Like so many other arts institutions much of our music-making has moved online, something that would have felt so alien just a few short months ago but that is nowadays a regular part of how we engage with the arts. The #GetCreativeAtHome campaign led by the Voluntary Arts organisation highlights the sheer number of ways that we can engage from home, while of course also supporting musicians who are having to adapt to the most unexpected circumstances. Our continued music-making provides us with a focus, with moments of respite and helps to connect us socially even when we cannot be together physically.

The arts, and music, have been at the forefront of our response to COVID-19 with very good reason. They have always been important to our wellbeing, and this is all the more so at a time of global crisis. The arts and artists must be supported because, until and after we meet again, they will continue to bring joy, meaning and connection when we need it most.

Acknowledgments – The research reported in this article has received funding from Arts Council England and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). It has been conducted by past and current members of the Centre for Performance Science.

Dr Rosie Perkins is Reader in Performance Science at the Royal College of Music and an honorary Research Fellow at Imperial College London. Rosie’s research focuses on arts in health and performers’ career development, and she is the programme leader for the RCM’s MSc in Performance Science. 

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