When members of an orchestra invite young patients to make music, the subdued sounds of the hospital give way to joy.
THE CHILDREN sat in a circle, wired to their drips, looking wan and apprehensive. Some were more severely ill than others, but they had in common the fact that they were sick.

"I want you to try and imagine a very different scene to the one you're in now," ventured Duke Dobing, a flautist with the City of London Sinfonia. "It takes place in ancient Greece, hundreds of years ago, when there was no electricity, no radio, no television and, no music." Young Daniel Flaherty's head crept up from underneath the sheets like a tortoise coming out of his shell. He propped himself up in bed and tuned in.

For a hour last Tuesday afternoon children from the paediatric ward in Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, in west London, quite forgot they were ill. The chapel where they were congregated was transformed into a communal concert hall, as a cacophony of sounds swirled about the ceiling and the children gave themselves up to the music.

This was "The Music that Heals", a one-hour workshop run by four musicians from the City of London Sinfonia orchestra. They are run monthly, for children, the elderly, expectant and new mothers, and HIV patients as a therapeutic session.

Duke sat in the middle of the room, relating the Greek legend of Pan and Syrinx, just as a father would read a bedtime story. His aim, however, was not to send the children to sleep, but to awaken them from their ill state and spark their imaginations.

Pan, the god of fields and woods, fell in love with Syrinx, a nymph, but Syrinx "didn't feel the same at all". Syrinx turned herself into a reed in order to hide from Pan. And then Pan heard something he had never heard before - the wind blowing through the reeds. He picked a reed, not realising it was the very one which Syrinx had turned herself into. "Pan at one go had invented the flute and music," concluded Duke.

Along with the flute and music, Pan unwittingly invented a medicine. The therapeutic power of music is well-documented. It was first described in the Bible, when David played the lyre to Saul and he was "refreshed, made well and the evil spirit departed". Even 2,000 years ago, flute-playing was said to ease sciatica; modern research has since suggested that music releases endorphins, the brain's painkillers.

Back in the workshop, it fell to the children to set the story of Pan and Syrinx to music. "Do you think you could make some hoofy noises with that?" asked Duke, selecting some brightly coloured "kids' bongos" from the collection of percussion instruments spilled out on the floor. "We thought this would be good river music," suggested Christine Jackson, a cellist with the City of London Sinfonia, wheeling a xylophone in the direction of Daniel's bed.

Daniel, six, looked distinctly dubious. He slunk back, almost in danger of disappearing beneath the covers again. But his curiosity got the better of him. He tentatively stroked the golden tubes with his fingertips and was rewarded with a singing, tinkling sound. He did it again. And again and again.

Daniel was not alone in being shy at first, but with a little encouragement the children all banged and shook their instruments, sometimes at a fast and furious pace, and at other times gently. "Now we need our mysterious water music on its own," instructed Duke. Daniel responded by running his fingers up and down the xylophone with huge, expansive sweeps, lost in music.

"What have you forgotten?" asked Duke. "What about making noise with your mouths?" At once they embarked on a chorus of frog noises, swishing reed noises and whistling. The occasional interruption of a bleep from a drip was the only reality check.

Suddenly, one boy looked desperate. His bandaged arm was hurting and the musicians were quick to catch on. He put down his instrument, but he didn't want to leave. Instead he sat and listened, quietly, with a far-away expression.

Next came the story of the hare and the tortoise. "What do you think you can learn from that story?" asked Christine, after telling the tale. "I'll tell you: that some of us take longer and work harder. Some of us are lazy. The people who work harder and keep going, in the very end they are better." Such a moral was poignant in the circumstances.

At the end of the hour-long workshop Duke thanked everybody for being "a fantastic orchestra". The children smiled. They were exhausted, but contented. Daniel said that he had been happiest "when I was doing the rivers," but that he had also enjoyed "the rabbit one".

Lily, 13, who had had an "external fixator" taken out of her leg the previous day, said she had had reservations about coming to the workshop. "I thought it would be a bit boring," she said, "but it was quite nice actually, playing lots of music and that. When you start playing music, you get into it. It was quite nice hearing it and knowing the different stories."

The music had distracted her, she added. "I didn't think about my leg at all," she said. "I just carried on with the music. It sort of relaxes you."

The hospital workshop is just one example of the activities undertaken by orchestras across Britain, be it in hospices, prisons, residential homes or schools. During National Orchestra Week, which runs from 9-15 March, more than 30 of the country's professional orchestras will perform to the public free as a mark of their commitment to interacting with the community

Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, which opened in 1993, is the first new NHS teaching hospital to be built in London since the Seventies. It is unusual in that it integrates the visual and performing arts into healthcare. All the funding for the arts is privately raised from individuals, businesses and charitable trusts.

Susan Loppert, director of the arts project at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, has masterminded the interactive arts programme. "What we're doing is not therapy," said Ms Loppert. "They are not music therapists, but it's therapeutic. It's part of the philosophy of the hospital, which is positive and uplifting."

To find out more about orchestral activities in your area, ring Freephone Talking Pages on 0800 600900, and ask for the Association of British Orchestra's National Orchestra Week.