The hospital's foundation was prompted by the tragic death of a young poet, meaning that this institution has been connected to the arts from its very inception. And 200 years on, I found myself working on a creative music project there this summer.
Led by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's Connect department, I was part of a small group of musicians who made weekly morning visits, over a period of six weeks, to the hospital's Canaan Ward for the care of elderly women. We were five players - violin, viola, cello, flute and percussion. We also had a fantastic occupational therapist facilitating our sessions, while other staff and nurses on the ward were all positive and helpful too. I have never done work where I felt better supported, or where there was so much debriefing, reflection, and discussion. Being a pilot project, this was particularly important. And it was critical for those of us who had never worked with Dementia sufferers before.
We visited a closed group of ladies, most of whom attended consistently. For each visit, led by experienced practitioner and percussionist Jane Bentley, we picked a theme on which we hung various imaginative musical adventures - holidays, for example, or a walk in the countryside. Our themes would prompt reminiscences, and we would chat, while introducing interactive musical episodes into the conversation, all of which were improvised. The ladies were encouraged and enabled to join in with these improvisations, either singing or playing small-handheld percussion instruments, meaning that these sessions were more creative and exploratory than traditional clinical forms of music therapy.
With no prompting at all, some of the ladies would get up and dance to the music, whether it had the feel of a reel or a tango. Arriving unexpectedly in the room at these moments, you would be forgiven for thinking you had stepped into the middle of a ceilidh in full swing, powered by tea and digestives.
Once or twice the nurses popped their heads in at these moments, to join in the dance with their patients as well. It felt joyful and cathartic, though we were careful to follow these spontaneously energetic moments with quieter, more contemplative music that necessitated a sit down.
After these group sessions, we would walk around the ward while playing, visiting the day room where less-mobile patients might be sitting. Here we saw more wonderful things. One lady, who to begin with seemed unable or unwilling to look up and engage with us and our music at all, in later weeks would come as fast as she could into the room to hear us play. Then she would sit and smile while we played to her, simply repeating the word "beautiful" as the tears rolled down her cheeks. Recalling this transformation still brings tears to my eyes.
I know that many readers will have their own stories and experiences of how music has the power to reach people who are otherwise locked out of normal interaction and society. While I have been writing this column, many of you have been in touch via twitter to share anecdotes and evidence of music's power and impact in this area of healthcare. In Edinburgh, we are lucky enough to have the Institute for Music in Human and Social Development, doing important scientific research in this area. Its co-director Dr Katie Overy is responsible for the formal evaluation of our SCO Connect project.
It seems that other musicians are getting busy with this kind of work too. The Association of British Orchestras has a day exploring the subject of Music and Dementia on November 4 at the Wigmore Hall in London. Our SCO sessions were observed by enthusiastic funders from the Edinburgh and Lothians Health Foundation. With such interest, I'm hoping that I can look forward to many more summers at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital.