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22 May 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:11pm

From cheap wine to cellos: the orchestra for recovering addicts

“When you hold the instrument you can feel the vibration in your stomach.”

By John Keenan

When Dan Blomfield was hospitalised with acute pancreatitis in his late thirties, doctors told him that if he carried on drinking to excess he was unlikely to make it to his 40th birthday. He passed that milestone in May, fit and sober – a fact he puts down entirely to his membership of the New Note Orchestra in Brighton.

“I heard about New Note Orchestra either through word of mouth or a flyer, I can’t remember which,” he says. “So I went along to the first rehearsal and I’ve never looked back.”

Blomfield had played in an acid-jazz funk band in his twenties, and felt comfortable playing guitar. “My goal with the orchestra was to play my Flying V on stage.” But when he arrived, he discovered there were already enought guitarists. “I switched to bass and then took on the cello. Now I play cello, bells, and keyboards. I like playing instruments I don’t know very well. That feels like recovery. I like the fact that on the cello I don’t really know where the notes are. I’m learning new skills.”

Blomfield says he taught himself to play the cello because it had had a strong connection to his experience of alcohol addiction.

“When you hold the instrument you can feel the vibration in your stomach,” he says. “For someone with my history, I was interested in that.”

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The route to recovery through music had been slow and tortuous for Blomfield. His descent into addiction was similar. “I never just had a moment when I was suddenly addicted to alcohol,” he says. “It crept in slowly over my life. It was how I dealt with stress.”

Blomfield worked abroad as a teacher in Japan for a number of years. Returning to the UK, he found it hard to get work and filled his days with drinking. When he did land a job in Brighton, teaching English as a foreign language, the drinking did not stop.

“I was teaching classes of 15 students and I was drinking two litres of vodka a day,” he says. No one seemed to notice. “I would go to the off-licence at 7am to get my vodka and some cheap fizzy drink to top it up with, then cycle to work. While cycling, I’d drink half the bottle then finish the rest during the day. It was doable because the job was seasonal and I didn’t get to know anyone that close. The students would come in on Monday and leave on Friday and as long I was teaching them what they had paid for, that was fine.”

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Blomfield’s wife tried to persuade him to stop, but was not able to prevent him from drinking outright. His body, however, eventually sent him the message that his drinking was not sustainable.

“The ambulance came and I remember there was a street party going on as I was carried from the house,” Blomfield recalls. “When I came out of hospital, I managed to stay sober for a couple of weeks but then it very slowly began to creep back in. Within a short period of time I was back in hospital again. I thought I’d get out and go back to work. But again the same thing happened.”

As his despair deepened, Blomfield began to think about ending his life. “I mentioned suicide to my wife and she got very panicked. But I couldn’t put up with the shame of asking for help. I couldn’t see a way out. I passed out and when I woke up my parents were in the room.”

His parents drove him to an A&E department and he agreed to enter a rehab programme, treating it, he says, like a university course: “I needed to educate myself out of the addiction and soaked up all the information I could.”

Blomfield came out of rehab, found new work in Brighton and discovered the New Note Orchestra, which claims to be the first and only recovery orchestra in the world. The members –  around 14 at the moment –  improvise together to make music. Audiences see the musicians looking a scores but there is no notation in the traditional sense. They play from a list of instructions honed over months of practice.

The founder of the orchestra, Molly Mathieson, says this approach is essential as it makes the orchestra inclusive to those with no experience of making music in the past. 

Mathieson gave up her career as a TV producer to set up the orchestra in 2015 after working on the Channel 4 programme Addicts’ Symphony and learning for herself how music helps recovering addicts. Her idea for the recovery orchestra was backed by the School for Social Entrepreneurs.

“A lot of people tried to persuade me not to use music as the inclusive element,” she says. “They said I would never find anyone who can create music this way. I knew there were people out there and I was determined to find them. Music is universal. Everyone has a relationship to music. You can be taught how to appreciate fine art, say, but music is innate. The important cornerstones you need for recovery are there – a sense of purpose, a common direction.”

Earlier this month, the orchestra played in front of an audience of 400 people at a conference in London. Blomfield insists the enthusiastic reaction of the crowd was merited by the performance alone regardless of the musicians’ back story.

He says: “We are a very credible high quality orchestra. We have been going for a few years and the personnel inevitably has changed but it has also been remarkably consistent. It provides a connection to who you are playing with and also to yourself. It creates a sense of being part of something bigger and owning what you create. That makes you feel positive.”