Ingeborg van Teeseling

About Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland fifteen years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website www.australia-explained.com.au, and runs www.lifebooks.com.au, telling people's life stories.

Muziek aan Bed: The dutch musicians bringing joy to terminal kids

Hidden inside a Utrecht hospital is ‘Muziek aan Bed’, the spectacle of two musicians playing one cello on four wheels. Wonderfully, their audience can’t get enough. 

 

 

Ilja* is six years old. A small girl holding her doll in one arm, clasping the edge of her doona with the other. Her parents are close by; dad in a big chair at the end of the bed, mum in the window seat.

Outside it is grey and raining, inside just a tad too warm. Ilja is wearing pajamas with stars and is waiting. She has been diagnosed with cancer and in an hour or so the doctors will operate. Marking time can be an exhausting chore and so it is for this family. When we enter the room, it feels like these people have been collectively holding their breath for far too long, hoping, praying maybe, focused only on the outcome of this terrifying process.

What is needed is a little levity, a smile, something to momentarily ease the mind. Today, this is provided by the Dutch Muziek aan Bed (Music at the Bedside) collective.

Immediately when they come inside, something shifts in the atmosphere. The women are dressed in bright red and burgundy pants-suits, with a belt around their waist that carries their bows. Their cello stands at the front of an ingenious, home-made contraption that also holds a seat, big enough for two. On wheels, of course, with a little cabinet at the back for stickers and other child-related materials.

They sit down on the seat, one in front of the other, and start to play. Together, on one cello. Four hands, one bow, while singing with two voices. First, they play a song from Frozen and then sing The Jungle Book’s evergreen ‘Bare Necessities’. Ilja smiles. Her parents do too. Something has happened. If even for a moment, a very worried family has been able to breathe.

The Prinses Maxima Centre in Utrecht is one of the best children’s cancer hospitals in Europe. It is also one of the newest; opened in 2018 by its namesake, now the Dutch queen, it boasts state-of-the-art research facilities, attracting scientists and clinicians from all over the world. At its centre, though, are 68 beds for very sick children. Every year, around 600 children in Holland are diagnosed with cancer. A quarter of them die.

In the age category between two and eleven years old, cancer is the primary killer. Many of these children spend some time here. Of course, they are being cared for by doctors and nurses, but because the hospital thinks it is vital to keep treating them like children, there is more, so much more for them here than just medical treatment.

The Maxima is the proud owner of a school and a library, clowns come to visit, and so do philosophers and biologists with snakes and spiders. There is a park, a construction site where kids can build things, a studio where they learn how to make blogs and do photography. Most of this has been designed by adults, but from the beginning, the Maxima has had a children’s advisory council, consisting of (ex) patients, who give their opinions on how the place is run and what could be better. One of the things they like is outsiders who help them and their parents carry the load. People like the women of Muziek aan Bed.

Ten years ago, the group was started by Tjakina Oosting and Marieke van der Heijden, both professional cellists. They had just discovered this new, strange way of playing the cello: together, as one person. Trying it out in a children’s hospital in Utrecht in 2010, they realised they were on to something here: the children loved it, and so did the parents.

 

They sit down on the seat, one in front of the other, and start to play. Together, on one cello. Four hands, one bow, while singing with two voices. First, they play a song from Frozen and then sing The Jungle Book’s evergreen ‘Bare Necessities’. Ilja smiles. Her parents do too. Something has happened. If even for a moment, a very worried family has been able to breathe.

 

For the first four years, the girls did it together, paid for by the hospitals. Then they became successful: more and more hospitals were asking for performances, for music at the bedside of their patients. Requests came from all around, not just facilities that were geared towards children. Within a few years, they were playing for adults and old people with dementia as well. Now the group consists of twelve cellists, all women, all professionals. They work in other capacities too: they play in orchestras or smaller ensembles and teach.

But once a week they don their red ‘uniform’, run over the forty or so songs they know by heart and open the door to yet another hospital. This year, they expect they will be performing in places like the Maxima at least two hundred times. 

After we leave Ilja’s room we have to get out of way for a stretcher with a child that has just arrived. It is a strange place for a newcomer: you would expect the ruckus that normally comes with dozens of children, but the corridors are almost eerily quiet.

Why becomes clear when we meet Tom. He has just come back from the hospital school; a little boy of about four, his parents and two older sisters in tow. His dad is pushing him in a wheelchair, maneuvering the IV through a tight corner. Tom looks tired and gaunt, a strange contrast to the cheerful balloons, toys and drawings in his room. Attached to it, separated only by a curtain, is a place where his parents are staying. I can see a suitcase there, clothes, a small make-up bag on a table. Tjakina and her partner for the day, Willemijn Knodler, sit down and do their thing. They sing songs from Dutch children’s television, making little jokes as they go along. The atmosphere remains subdued, but Tom manages a weak smile or two, which is quite something, considering. While the women are playing, they are drawing a crowd in the corridor. Other parents, doctors and nurses linger just that little bit longer and you can see them enjoy the change of pace, of tone.

After performing for Tom, we meet little Djoeke, on her way to an appointment with the doctors, her mum at her side. Djoeke might only be five years old, but she is an old hand at this hospital caper and recognises the women with their cello. ‘Can you play the one about the mouse for me?’ she asks. While Tjakina and Willemijn play and perform a little story about a mouse in a hospital, Djoeke looks on. Pink hat on her bald head, pink slippers, her face swollen as a consequence of the chemo. Another one of those tired smiles. When we walk away, Tjakina tells me how difficult it can sometimes be, this job, and how confronting. ‘I never ask what is wrong with a child’, she says. ‘I try to remain naïve. When we come into a room and a child you’ve performed for before is no longer there, I don’t want to know what happened. That is the only way to keep sane’.

 

After we leave Ilja’s room we have to get out of way for a stretcher with a child that has just arrived. It is a strange place for a newcomer: you would expect the ruckus that normally comes with dozens of children, but the corridors are almost eerily quiet.

 

Her colleague agrees. ‘Especially since I’ve had a child of my own it really hits me. Partly it is the ‘there but for the grace of God’, but you also realise how lucky you are and how quickly that can change. In the meantime, I focus on what we are doing here. We are lifting people’s spirits by offering them the power of music. Music is amazing in evoking emotions and when people are in pain or sad, that is often exactly what they need’.

Tjakina: ‘What we’ve become very good at is sensing what the mood of a room is and translating that into a song or a piece of music. You are confronted constantly with human vulnerability and are trying to balance that out by sound. Sometimes something funny is called for, sometimes something quiet and reflective. And you have to be careful, because often parents of sick children are completely closed off. They don’t want to feel anything, afraid that if they do, they will fall apart. So, you have to be forever vigilant, ready to literally change your tune at a moment’s notice. But look what you get for your efforts: it might be difficult, but boy, does it pay you back in spades. Every time we walk out of a hospital, we feel enriched and grateful. You’ve actually made a difference in the lives of other people. What more can you ask for in a job?’

 

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*The names of the children have been changed

If you want to support Muziek aan Bed, know more about them or maybe start an Australian equivalent, this is the place to start.

 

 

 

 

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