Why Embrace actually started behind bars

Embrace-Netherlands creator Philip Curtis:
Why Embrace actually started behind bars

HARLINGEN Philip Curtis is the spiritual father of Embrace Netherlands. His ideas, to use music as a medicinal and even uplifting agent, led to the formation of the organization anno 2021: a foundation that conceives, executes and further develops music programs. To help people who could really use that little extra support. A story about what drove Philip in his search for a more meaningful life.

Actually, Philip explains, the source of Embrace Netherlands lies behind the meter-thick wall of a London prison. In the chapel of Wormwood Scrubs, the former University of York student discovered that music could effectively mean something substantial. That even a deplorable soul derives joy from a key or sound.

Philip performed with a pianist several times for dozens of prisoners, including a good number of long-serving prisoners. “I was the first singer at Live Music Now by world-renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin, an international charitable foundation that still exists. At one point I was asked to perform at the prison. It made a big impression on me, because for the first time I was introduced to the real impact of music.’

Philip wanted to be a doctor. Or pianist or singer. Following in the footsteps of his musical parents – mother was a midwife and father a hospital pharmacist – the choice to explore music therapy in the early 1970s was a logical one. The profession of medicine proved a pipe dream, as Philip was hopeless in the sciences. Musical therapy projects, as part of his university music education, suited him much better. He played and worked in institutions for children with varying and sometimes severe physical or intellectual disabilities. ‘I found that too intense at one point. When two young children died, children with whom I had built a bond, I stopped.’

But the epiphany in grubby Wormwood Scrubs had permanently lodged itself in the young Briton’s mind. Music, theater and education, collaborations with like-minded people, the burgeoning love of opera, musical theater and musical, and his affection for helping others – with music – had become part of him forever. Thanks to opera and musical theater, he played at home and abroad.

In the early 1990s, Philip focused more on writing and directing opera and musical theater pieces. As early as the mid-1980s, he had been touring regularly in Amsterdam, where he met Margot Hoiting. ‘And for her, I stayed in Holland forever.’ 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 conservatories of Amsterdam and The Hague. The Musician as Actor course was conceived by him. “Because at the time I was amazed at the acting level of many opera students.

Writing, teaching, directing, at a high level: his curriculum vitae got a new chapter in 2008 with his appointment at the Prince Claus Conservatory. An added bonus was the commitment of six European conservatories to add the master’s degree in New Audiences and Innovative Practice – NAIP for short – to the curriculum. Right up his alley; Philip was one of the creators of the master’s for “the musician who wants to reach new audiences through experimentation and research. A study that today is also taught in Reykjavik and Stockholm, among other places.

Four years later, another major change took place. During a presentation on Music for Life (MFL), Philip heard about a new study on improvised music for people in the final stages of dementia. It intrigued him greatly. Together with professor Rineke Smilde and teacher Renee Jonker, he developed the course “music and dementia. “I learned a lot about dementia, including through my work visits to England. Those brought him back to London for a while in 2013, in the city where his mother had continued to live after his father’s death. ‘My mother had Alzheimer’s. I was still able to play for her. Thanks to the internship, I was able to see her many times until the end.’

The seed of Embrace Netherlands fully blossomed with the lessons of Music for Life and thanks to previous prison experiences with Live Music Now. After all, surely playing for these vulnerable elderly people could also be done for other receptive groups? The experiment of improvised music was therefore further developed by Philip and Margot. Workshops were added so that caregivers and care staff could continue playing after the Embrace musicians left. So that they had additional medical instruments at their disposal.

Philip Curtis in his study. Photo Embrace Netherlands

Embrace Netherlands was launched in 2014, as part of the classical-music festival CityProms in Leeuwarden. State Secretary Martijn van Rijn (Public Health) attended the ceremonial christening. The independent Embrace Foundation became a center of excellence. With a team thinking about new, surprising and personalized music programs. First active in the north and then in other parts of the country, such as Rotterdam, Tilburg and Waalwijk.

“Actually,” Philip experienced after all those special and healing musical and often intimate interludes, “playing in large concert halls was a breeze afterwards. Because playing for people in a nursing home or in a hospice is not easy. That’s when you want to do it really well. Then the pressure of striving for perfection is sometimes an obstacle.’

On the other hand, it is also purifying. Because playing music at a bedside, for someone in the final stages of life, is overwhelming, says Philip: “You watch, you feel, you listen. You are very aware of the moment that is as fragile as it is wondrous. You are privileged to experience something special. That’s what Embrace does to you. That’s why Embrace moves caregivers, family, musicians and audiences. And I remain grateful for every moment.