John Bulter with guitar

Music motivates John to volunteer

24 April 2018

John Butler is a volunteer Music Mentor at SMART London, which supports people affected by mental illness on their path to recovery. Here he tells Team London about why he became a volunteer and what continues to motivates him. 

I had freelanced as an IT consultant for nearly 30 years, before changing careers, helping my wife set up a handmade jewellery and sculpture company. Although the hours were long and tough, it was not a 9 to 5 gig, so I was able to pursue another of my passions – music!

Music has always been part of who I am. I started playing the piano aged six, reaching Grade 7 at school before leaving the piano behind and teaching myself guitar. I've played in lots of bands, gained a Diploma in Music Performance at Guitar X Music Academy, and have also been fortunate enough to have travelled across the globe, always taking a guitar in my luggage. Because of this, I have had the privilege of playing with lots of musicians to whom I could not verbally communicate due to language differences – wonderful examples of music transcending language and has held me in good stead in my current volunteering role.  

John Bulter volunteering

The reason I was initially interested in music therapy was due to a video clip that was posted on Youtube. It was of an elderly man with dementia, whose daughter had discovered that his condition was ameliorated when she played him music from his childhood. I was profoundly moved by the footage, and decided to see if there were any music therapy projects around my area, and that led me to SMART Music.

In 2014 I began volunteering as a Music Mentor at SMART London, which began as a collaboration between SMART and Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy and was a weekly musical gathering in the SMART café. Now it is a dynamic and ever-evolving project with a variety of participatory music groups and events. The project is run by Sarah Wilson, whose dedication and hard work have been inspirational to me.

Each week I work with groups of service users in café sessions, as well as one-on-one sessions. I also rehearse the house band, “Mad In Chelsea” for public performances at the 606 Club, the World’s End Estate and other fundraising gigs.  

SMART music has been an eye-opener: I can really see how music can be an agent for change in adult mental health. A number of the service users I’ve worked with over the years have mentioned that without the SMART music sessions, they feel that they would not be alive today. It’s testament to how important the music is, and the sense of belonging that they feel. Each week, Sarah and I notice positive changes. It might be someone who has never spoken up before who asks for a tune to be played, or another who has never actively participated before but actually gets up to sing with us. The sense of community and ‘belonging’ is very strong within SMART, and the benefits of their approach to music therapy on both an individual and group level are very evident.

It’s because of what I have experienced with SMART over the last 4 years that I have applied to Nordoff-Robbins to do a Masters degree in Music Therapy. I am currently keeping my fingers crossed to see if I reach the audition stages.

Do you have a skill or hobby, like John, that could benefit others? Become a volunteer and share your passion! Take a look at the Team London website to get inspired.