On Wednesday night this week Channel 4 aired ‘Notes from the Inside with James Rhodes’, a brief look into how music can provide help and hope to those suffering from mental illness. Rhodes took his impressive Steinway grand piano into a psychiatric hospital to attempt to connect with some of the patients. I am completely fascinated by the properties of music in this regard, particularly in the case of dementia and Alzheimer’s and how music can be used to trigger emotional memories and awaken people who are otherwise very introverted. I was excited to watch ‘Notes from the Inside’ to broaden my understanding of how music moves people.
James Rhodes is the perfect focal point for this kind of documentary. Not only does he have a Professor Brian Cox like rock ’n’ roll charm, he has also experienced firsthand the effects of mental illness having been in psychiatric care after suffering abuse as a child and is very open and honest about it. This honesty gave Rhodes a really striking manner with the patients he encountered during this documentary, particularly with 19 year old Kelly who has schizophrenia. It was a heartbreaking and also wonderful moment when James and Kelly shared their self harm scars; both firmly feeling like that period of their life was in the past. The piece Rhodes chose for Kelly was In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg. He chose it because of familiarity (seeing as it appears in the Alton Towers advert, The Social Network and countless other commercials and films) and because it is an intense, building arrangement with a lot of drama, a “crazy piece” as Rhodes puts it. Kelly’s reaction is wonderful to watch, the recognition of the music, the complexity of the playing and the heavy, dramatic chords all resulted in an enormous grin spreading across her face. She was connected and thrilled by the music, despite James Rhodes’ worries that she wouldn’t find classical music as appealing as he does.
The joy of Kelly’s reaction was short lived, as the next person James met with was 41 year old Jason, who has been in psychiatric care almost half of his life. The part of Jason’s story I found most emotive is that his mother also suffered from schizophrenia, and took her own life. Jason grew up knowing this fate was most likely ahead of him, watching as it destroyed his mother. Much like James Rhodes found solace in classical music during his time in psychiatric care, Jason seeks peace through swimming. There is something similar in these activities, music is an incredibly personal and sometimes very isolating thing, and swimming is much the same. Whilst in one instance your ears are full of the melodies of Bach, in the other they are filled with water, both leaving you alone with your thoughts.
All of the patients James Rhodes talked to throughout the documentary had a very honest and open reaction to the music he played them. This was partly down to the personal choice of music and of course the incredible reaction our bodies have when faced with live music. ‘Notes from the Inside’ revealed the most about James Rhodes himself, as he admits being back in a mental health institution “scares the hell out of me”. The fragility of him, the patients and all of us becomes hugely clear to the viewer, further rationalising how finding clarity, or distraction, in music can be so beneficial. If the viewer needed any further convincing of the power of music then the choice of soundtrack to ‘Notes from the Inside’ shows you it all. The soft notes of Debussy’s Claire de Lune play out over Jason’s story, cause me to well up; the music complementing in the most melancholy way, a testing and troubled life.
I could write for hours on how wonderful I found this documentary and how fascinating I find the life of James Rhodes but I won’t. If you have any interest in humanity, psychological illness or music then do watch it, it is still available on 4OD.