You may already know Miss Mustardseed as a member of our troupe – a singer and all-round beautiful performer. What you may not know is that when she isn’t stunning spectators with her sensitive serenades, she is usually working as a critical care nurse. In this blog, she offers her perspective on the power of music to form connections, between audiences and performers – and between dying patients and their carers.
When people ask me “did you always know you wanted to be a nurse?”, I have to answer honestly: No.
For as long as I can remember, I have sung. I was lucky enough to have supportive parents, who paid for singing and piano lessons and put up with hours of (no doubt, at times, excruciating) music practice – who also helped me through a year of crushing stage fright, so bad that I had to back out of playing Fagin in my primary school play. Despite this episode of stage fright, I have always been drawn to performing arts.
When I reached age 15, I was convinced I wanted to work in the theatre. From an actor to a stage manager to a producer, I explored many different roles. I was your quintessential “theatre nerd.” I couldn’t get enough.
At the heart of it was my awe at the artist’s ability to tell a story – having the empathy and talent to make those experiencing it feel less alone.
I can remember the first time I was swept up in a piece of music – listening to “Wild is the Wind” by Nina Simone in the darkness of my school dormitory. I was faced with the true power of music, performed by a stunning performer. Since then, memorable moments of being moved by music are countless. There are performances and pieces that, within a few seconds of being played, make me feel as if I have travelled back in time. And I still think of it now, every time I ask a patient: “Would you like the radio on…?” In my experience, a fantastic conversation starter.
Both music and performing have brought me to places where I need to face my fears and believe in myself.
I continued to do lots of theatre – mainly musicals – at university. This is where I was introduced to such seminal performances as Cynthia Orevo playing Celie in The Colour Purple, Elaine Stritch singing I’m Still Here, and Billy Porter’s rendition of Not My Father’s Son – all artists telling a story, reaching out to a sea of strangers and saying “listen.” A key ingredient of performing and experiencing art is the age old cliche: “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Just like all cliches, it is based on an essential truth.
Having said all this, it was at university that I discovered that a career in the theatre wouldn’t actually make me happy. Don’t get me wrong, it taught me so much and I made many close friends. I actually met my now-partner doing a production of Sondheim’s Company (see above!). But I realised that I wouldn’t be able to make it my livelihood.
I explored several different careers in the public sector. I thought about social work, teaching and various different carer roles. I was lucky enough to find nursing. I feel lucky for many, many reasons. One of which is that nursing not only gives me the time to pursue other creative projects, but also complements it in a way I never expected – for all the reasons I fell in love with performing in the first place.
During my time as a nurse, I have been lucky enough to also be a troupe-member of Invisible Cabaret. As a troupe member, I have sung, played piano, recited poetry and impersonated the great Judy Garland. There are countless reasons why being part of this project is good for me in general. Singing has well attested benefits for physical health and posture, whilst playing piano keeps me focused and disciplined. (In fact, just before typing this up I was revisiting a piece I had learned at school – the intricate note patterns refocussing me, and relieving my mind from all my usual worries and stresses.)
Both music and performing have brought me to places where I need to face my fears and believe in myself. There are so many aspects of being a part of this troupe that have helped me directly with my training. It has taught me to be brave and travel outside of my comfort zone. It has taught me the importance of asking for help.
By the same token, my work as a nurse has also provided invaluable inspiration for my creative work, especially given the mission statement of Invisible Cabaret. I’ve used my experience with patients and my access to nursing literature to support our discussion of mental wellbeing and inspire some of our pieces.
Being a troupe member is not dissimilar to being a member of good nursing team. We support each other, make each other laugh, share stories and pick up cues when someone else is struggling. We help each other form creative solutions to complex issues, and learn to ask for help when we need it. The importance of community and teamwork in one complements the other almost perfectly.
One of the first times I ever performed in front of people was a poetry reading contest. I think I must have been 8 years old. The judge spoke briefly at the beginning. She reminded us that performing should, first and foremost, be a generous act. You should think of it as giving something to the audience, rather than taking something for yourself. My career as a nurse reminds me to be generous, both on stage and in many other aspects of my life.
I remember this when I take time to find out a patient’s favourite type of music or movie or book. Even if my patient is sedated – as they often are, working on critical care – this is one of the ways we can express empathy and form a connection. I will never forget the time I sat with a patient, listening to his favourite Otis Redding song just before he died – not alone, as I had been listening to Nina Simone, but holding hands together.
Coming back to that same question, “did you always know you wanted to be nurse?” I suppose a more accurate answer would be: No, I didn’t know. But I was meant to be a nurse. And my other passions not only complement but contribute to my job, like strands woven together to make each other stronger.
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