Embrace-Netherlands creator Philip Curtis: Why Embrace actually started behind bars
HARLINGEN Philip Curtis is the spiritual father of Embrace Netherlands. His idea to use music as a medicinal and potentially uplifting tool led to the formation of the organisation in 2021: a foundation that devises, executes and develops music programmes. In order to help people who could do with that little bit of extra support. Here is the story about what drove Philip in his search for a more meaningful life.
Actually, says Philip, Embrace Netherlands’ source lies behind the metre-thick wall of a London prison. In the chapel of Wormwood Scrubs, the former student of York University discovered that music could mean something vital. That touch or sound can evoke joy even in an unhappy soul.
Alongside a pianist, Philip performed several times for dozens of prisoners, including quite a few long-term prisoners. “I was the first singer on Live Music Now, an initiative created by world-renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin which still exists today as an international charitable foundation. At one point I was asked to perform in prison. I was so impressed because it was the first time that I had been introduced to the true impact of music. “
Philip wanted to be a doctor. Or a pianist, or a singer. Following his musical parents – his mother was a midwife and his father a hospital pharmacist – his choice in the early 1970s to investigate music therapy was a logical one. But being a doctor turned out to be a utopian dream for Philip because he was hopeless at science subjects. The musical therapy projects which were part of his university education as a musician, suited him much better. He played and worked in institutions for children who had differing and sometimes severe physical or mental disabilities. “At one point I found it too intense. When two young children with whom I had formed a bond died, I quit. “
But the epiphany in the grubby Wormwood Scrubs had lodged itself permanently in the young Briton’s mind. Music, theatre and education, collaborations with like-minded people, his burgeoning love for opera, music theatre and musicals, and his desire to help others – through music – had found an enduring place in his heart. And thanks to opera and music theatre, he performed at home and abroad.
In the early 1990s Philip concentrated increasingly on writing and directing opera and musical theatre. From the mid-1980s he regularly toured to Amsterdam, where he met Margot Hoiting. “And I chose to live permanently in the Netherlands for her.” Together with Margot and Theo Abazis – a Greek composer – they founded the Music Theatre Group Amsterdam in 1997. He was asked to work as a teacher at the Amsterdam and The Hague conservatories. The Musician as Actor course was devised by him. “Because I was amazed at the acting level of many opera students at the time.”
Writing, teaching, directing, at a high level: and in 2008 his curriculum vitae gained a new chapter when he was appointed to the Prince Claus Conservatoire. With an added bonus when six European conservatories committed to adding the masters in New Audiences and Innovative Practice – NAIP for short – to their curriculum. It was right up his street; Philip was one of the inventors of the masters for “the musician who wants to reach new audiences through experiment and research”. A masters which is now also taught in, among other cities, Reykjavik and Stockholm.
Four years later another big change occurred. During a presentation on Music for Life (MFL), Philip heard about new research into improvised music for people in the final stages of dementia. He was immensely intrigued. Together with Professor Rineke Smilde and teacher Renee Jonker, he developed the ‘music and dementia’ course. “I learned a lot about dementia, also through work visits to England.” One of these brought him back to London for a short while in 2013, to the city where his mother had continued to live after his father’s death. “My mother had Alzheimer’s. I was able to play for her. Thanks to the internship, I was able to see her frequently until she died. “
The seed of Embrace Netherlands came to full bloom through both the lessons of Music for Life and his earlier prison experiences with Live Music Now. If playing for these vulnerable elderly people was possible, surely it was also possible for other receptive groups? Philip and Margot decided to develop their experiment with improvised music further. Workshops were added so that informal carers and care personnel could continue to play even after the Embrace musicians had left. An additional medical instrument had been made available to them.
Embrace Netherlands was launched in 2014 as part of the Leeuwarden classical music festival CityProms. State Secretary Martijn van Rijn (Public Health) attended the ceremonial baptism, and the independent Embrace foundation became a centre of expertise, with a team committed to new, surprising and personalised music programmes. Initially the team was active in the north and then spread to other parts of the country, such as Rotterdam, Tilburg and Waalwijk.
After the special, healing and often intimate musical intermezzos Philip experienced, “playing in large concert halls was actually a breeze. Because playing for people in a nursing home or in a hospice is not easy. You want to excel and then the pressure of striving for perfection is sometimes an obstacle. “
But it was also cathartic. Because playing music at the bedside of someone in the last phase of their life is overwhelming, says Philip: “You look, you feel, you listen. You are very aware of the very fragility and amazement of that moment. You are privileged to experience something so special. That’s what Embrace does for you. And that is why Embrace touches caretakers, family, musicians and audiences. And I remain grateful for every moment. “