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Song in the City: Taking Classical Music out of its comfort zone

Original Photo of Creative Minds in Song Event

I have been a trustee of 'Song in the City' for nearly 10 years now. I was initially drawn to their series of lunchtime concerts in the City of London. After that, I became interested in their socially engaged projects, which matched my work at Arts Council England.


Song in the City is an artist-led registered charity, directed by Gavin Roberts & Rebecca Cohen, that takes classical music out of its comfort zone. We devise innovative interdisciplinary performance projects that connect artists, communities, organisations, and audiences    


Through the seemingly traditional genre of song, we have been working to revolutionise the relationship between classical musicians and their audiences through imaginative concerts, and social projects. Partnerships have been key to this, and in recent years have included Patrick McDowell for London Fashion Week, Guildhall School, Rambert Dance Company, MIND in Tower Hamlets and Newham, and the National Portrait Gallery.


Healthy Lunch Breaks

We go back to January 2011, to St Botolph’s Church Hall near Liverpool Street station where Song in the City started its free series of concerts called “Healthy Lunch Breaks”. These performances were designed around socially engaging themes allowing a connection with new audiences that might not otherwise attend a song concert. Thus, this series comprised concerts on the themes of love, Shakespeare in song, LGBT+, war songs, Black History Month, and others. And so, it kicked off what would become over 150 free lunchtime concerts, concluding in 2017. Office workers, local residents, music lovers, and tourists alike were all able to enjoy an hour of free classical song every week.  


Artistic directors and Professorial staff at the Guildhall School Gavin Roberts and Rebecca Cohen curated and performed at these concerts, drawing on student performers from the Guildhall School. The artistic goal was always to find new ways of presenting classical songs beyond the traditional recital format. Theatricality, drama, and movement all became touchstones of these performances.


“I initially wanted to study piano accompaniment (at the Guildhall) because I love music, but I've come to realise that the world it inhabits can be stuffy and intimidating. That should never be the case - we grow up singing songs and I hope Song in the City captures the joy in that." 

- Gavin Roberts, Artistic Director, Song in the City



Creative Minds in Song

Parallel to the “Healthy Lunch Breaks”, Song in the City was developing a focus on how music and song could positively engage people with mental health challenges and those in the mental health services. In 2013, we started our flagship project, now called 'Creative Minds in Song'.

Creative Minds in Song brings mental health service users with lived experiences of severe mental illness as poets, together with composers, singers, and pianists from the Guildhall School and previously King's College London. They work together to transform the poets’ (patients’) words into a recognisable poetry format by collaborating with writers and then turning this poetry into music and song through a series of facilitated workshops.


At the heart of the project is the simple idea of finding a way for the songs to reflect the poets’ experiences, knowledge, and understanding of the mental health system through their personal experiences, and what it is like to live in a society that continuously stigmatises people living with mental health challenges. 


The songs tell the stories of these experiences and are performed in front of an audience, resulting in poignant, emotionally true representations of the experiences providing direct insight into what it is like to live daily with mental health challenges.

Creative Madness in Song 2017


There’s substantial evidence of the transformative nature of music for people with a wide range of mental health challenges, such as schizophrenia and depression. Here, the format of traditional classical music recital breaks out of its clichéd “white tie and tails” stereotype and becomes something owned by the poets themselves, some of whom also perform reflecting their own participation, characters, and needs.  


Pairing trained musicians with people who have real stories to tell can produce a result like none other. 


While the poets themselves gain much from the project, the project can have a transformative impact on the musicians and artists, often encouraging them to confront their own feelings and emotions as they work to transform the poets' emotionally rich experiences.


At the most basic level, the musicians and singers themselves have the opportunity to engage in an environment often far removed from the starchy world of classical music and the view that most people have of it. 


The process of the project and how participation happens is paramount, with the workshop format being the heart of it, and each voice being equally valued as part of the development of the songs.  Workshops provide an environment for mutual encounter and learning, and occasions to celebrate the group’s creative achievements before sharing them in performances.


Contact and connection between mental health service users, poets, composers, singers (training professionals and mental health service users themselves), and pianists is crucial at all stages of the process so that a group mentality is adopted to enable the best sharing of creativity. This aligns with the 5 evidence-based actions to improve personal wellbeing (Connect, Be active, Take notice, Keep learning, Give) of The New Economics Foundation. 


Song in the City is currently planning another iteration of the Creative Minds in Song project and we are in the process of looking for partners and of course, funding, to make it happen.


This is a so much needed initiative as the project breaks down stigmas associated with mental health issues creating a link between mental illness and creativity. 

“After all the years of fighting and survival, my life is opening up again through the wonderful creative minds in the song project and my wonderful composer. I would never have had these opportunities without mental health”

– Poet from MIND.

Original Photo of Creative Minds in Song Event

1 Comment

Beverly Powell
Beverly Powell
Jun 28

The concept of creating songs that represent the poets' own experiences, life experiences, and knowledge and comprehension of the mental health system is a highly significant endeavor. in a culture where stigma against those who suffer from mental health issues is pervasive. geometry dash subzero

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