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In Review: TEDx University of Edinburgh 2015

ByAmanda Ho

Mar 11, 2015

On 19 February, the third annual TEDx event at University of Edinburgh was held on campus.  The Student sent three of its news team to attend the talks and interview the speakers.  Below are their accounts.


Lily Asch: ‘Let’s Have a Conversation’

by Amanda Ho

Lily Asch

In her talk – ‘Let’s Have A Conversation’ – first-year student Lily Asch discussed her psychological journey and offered the need for conversation as a crucial future solution to mental health treatment.

At the age of 14, Lily was admitted into a psychiatric ward for seven days and allowed total of 30 minutes outdoors during her time there.

She struggled with her depression, alongside feelings of isolation, fear and the fact that no one would offer her a simple explanation as to why she felt the way she did.

It began with her flute teacher, Lisa, who encouraged her to talk about her feelings and happenings of her day before the start of each lesson.

After these meetings, she claimed that her perception of life began to change, beginning with removing the doubt and insecurities she as a normal human being, harshly imposed on herself. She started to open herself up to her close friends, families or complete strangers.

Through sharing stories with those around her, she was able to build these connections and to accumulate gems of information which helped her develop through her mental health journey. In her teacher, she discovered a different kind of therapy, which acted as an effective support system.

The art of conversing not only made her feel better, but also improved her self-awareness of the reasoning behind her emotions.

Although many barriers we face everyday are a result of our harsh critique towards ourselves, society’s stigma towards mental illness was another factor Lily stated prevented individuals from admitting they were sick and needing help.

Despite this, Asch started off her talk by asking the audience to raise their hand up if they had ever attended therapy. During a recent interview with The Student, she voiced out her surprise at the large number of hands that were up in the air, in which she replied “then why aren’t we talking about our problems?!”

She stressed from her experience that depression could be an isolating experience, which was why conversation was so important.

The fluid relationship between being the speaker and expressing yourself or being the non-judgemental listener, was the basis of forming relationships between individuals.

Her central message in her talk was that if society changed its mind-set, people would feel more comfortable opening up about their mental well-being, thus leading to the right treatment and help being provided as early as possible. But, as every individual’s feelings vary, she emphasized to audience members that the most important thing was to find a support system that helped them cope the best.

For this reason, Asch is a strong advocate for alternative methods of therapy. She highlighted the importance of having productive outlets to express oneself, such as sports and extracurricular activities.

She also encouraged opening up through providing openness and comfort, rather than being coerced based on institutional fear and confinement to a room, claiming this was the right step for helping many struggling with mental illness.

She admitted she had been lucky and makes sure to take advantage of the opportunities that come her way, as well as conveys her desire for others to do the same.

The purpose of Lily’s speech was to reinforce the message that no one should ever be apologetic for being sick. Instead, she claims, it is  fundamental part of human nature and inherent in individuals within our society.

Her talk encouraged others that transformation was possible, but required us to be the “agents of our own change”. Admitting our problems is the difficult first step in a long, continuous process of self-development.

Asch is currently the General Manager for FreshSight Ltd, a student-run consultancy service at Edinburgh.

Raymond MacDonald: ‘Why Everyone is Musical’

By Ross Devlin

Raymond MacdonaldRaymond MacDonald, Professor of Music Psychology and Improvisation at the University of Edinburgh, wound together jazz, psychology, and education for his TEDx talk – ‘Why Everyone is Musical’.

First, he explained to the crowd how music can have deeply beneficial psychology properties, and then he showed them how everyone was musical, and they could all learn to improvise.

By addressing a fundamental belief held by primary schools and adult alike – that some people “have the music gene,” and others “just don’t” – MacDonald sought to inspire attendees to go and try that one instrument left in the attic after failed practice attempts and discouragement.

MacDonald then explained that his musical agility was not a gift exclusive to him; music is a form of communication that is embedded in all humans, he said, and a human’s intrinsic ability to improvise is an incredible one.

According to MacDonald, all people have it within them to improvise. It is both “the highest form of art” and “a parlor trick anyone can do,” he said.

Improvisation is the extension of music into the unknown, when musicians leave the “chart”, or sheet music, and bring the notes out of their minds and souls.

MacDonald made a point that improvisation is not limited to jazz, nor to the most elite players. To play without restraint can be as liberating as dancing, and all people are born improvisers.

2 News 2 MacDonald
To illustrate his point, Raymond MacDonald played music on stage for the audience

He claimed that although everyone knows the tune to happy birthday, we all start out of key, and somehow manage to harmonize as we go along.

MacDonald – an accomplished saxophonist, conductor, composer, and academic – also used his talk to ask the question “Why is music an important skill for everyone to practice as much as they desire?”

He explained that this is the case because of the psychological health benefits from music, with his desire to change how society sees musical ability can be seen in Polyphony, a project headed by MacDonald providing musical activities to those with mental health problems.

Throughout his talk, MacDonald used several anecdotes to illustrate the joys and triumphs music brought him.

In one instance, MacDonald recalled meeting Scottish comedian Billy Connolly at a pub. On the topic of free improv, Connolly commended MacDonald on his craft, remarking “if those jazz bastards don’t like you, you must be doing something right.”

Children are often selected through arbitrary measures for music lessons at school. By growing up with a stigma attached to musical ability, many people are disenchanted to embrace music fully.

“People internalize their earliest musical contingency,” said MacDonald, and it is unfortunate when this contingency happens to sway one away from picking up a guitar, or clarinet.

To illustrate the point that everyone is musical, MacDonald concluded his talk by conducting an impromptu ensemble of the audience, using three hand symbols to coax a tune from the crowd.

Dr Gareth Williams: ‘Making Music for Fragile Voices’

By Stuart McFarlane

Gareth Williams

In his talk at the TEDx conference – ‘Making Music for Fragile Voices’ – Dr Gareth Williams discussed his plans to use music to improve the lives of cystic fibrosis sufferers.

Dr Williams, a former composer-in-residence at Scottish Opera and current Chancellor’s Fellow at the Reid School of Music, created the charity ‘Breath Cycle’ in early 2013 alongside librettist David Brock to create a series of vocal exercises and songs for patients on the respiratory ward at Glasgow’s Gartnavel Hospital.

The effect of the exercises was then tested by the Consultant Physician on Cystic Fibrosis and Respiratory Medicine Dr Gordon MacGregor, who measured the physical and mental wellbeing of patients taking part in regular singing.

In his talk, Williams outlined that the motivation of the project was to release “fragile voices usually disenfranchised by music”.

He outlined some key facts about cystic fibrosis, caused by a faulty gene passed from parents to their child and leads to a build-up of thick mucus in the body, especially in the lungs.

Williams pointed out that this mucus in the lungs means that even breathing is challenging for sufferers, meaning that they are usually unable to perform key vocal tasks. The average life expectancy for cystic fibrosis sufferers in the UK is 31.

In order to alleviate the challenges for many sufferers, Breath Cycle has created a range of vocal exercises to be combined with the traditional physiotherapy undertaken by most cystic fibrosis sufferers to reduce the mucus levels in their lungs.

The talk also discussed one of the key difficulties for the project was creating a community of singers as cystic fibrosis sufferers are unable to be in the same room for risk of cross-contamination.

As a result, Breath Cycle have used online forums and Skype to upload songs, create tailor-made melodies for each patient and allow them to access tips and notes from specialised vocal coaches on the project.

2 News 2 Williams
Dr Gareth Williams spoke on using singing as a treatment technique for cystic fibrosis

Concluding his talk, Williams outlined that the initial results from the project had been positive, with most patients showing significant improvement in lung function.

As a result of these successful early signs, he claimed that his hope for the future was for vocal training and singing could become a regular part of treatment plans for cystic fibrosis sufferers.

The Student managed to speak to Dr Williams after his talk about the project. Firstly, he spoke about the reason for selecting the TEDx Edinburgh audience for his talk.

He said: “I guess I wanted to share at the TEDx conference with people outside my usual sphere. I wanted to see if the idea was robust enough and engaging enough to people outside the world of classical singing and who are unconnected with the Cystic Fibrosis condition.

“The feedback I received suggested that there was something here that people respond to and could connect with.”

Williams also addressed questions about the national scope of Breath Cycle: “There is so much anecdotal information about how singing can aid people with CF, and there are choirs and singing projects in place in some hospitals for people with respiratory conditions.

We’re hoping for significant medical data over the next three years to show definite benefits of regular singing for people with CF.  My long term hope is that vocal coaching and singing lessons will become part of the way we treat and care for people with CF.”

Finally, Williams discussed the level of support for the project within Edinburgh: “My work in this field is being supported and guided with the help of colleagues in Research and Knowledge Exchange, and in ECA.

“I’m currently meeting with people from the Scottish Documentary Institute for example and getting advice on how to create online performance opportunities for people with CF, who can’t share the same physical space, from colleagues in informatics.

“There will be opportunities for cross discipline collaboration over the course of this project and that’s why I’m here at Edinburgh University!”

Reviews in Brief

by Stuart McFarlane

Johanna Holtan

Johanna Holtan: ‘Lessons from a Penny and a Rubber Band’

Holtan spoke of the need for imaginative solutions to problems. She discussed her ‘CycleHack’ event, where cyclists and enthusiasts combined to develop future solutions and also ‘Penny in Yo’ Pants’, where she showed that a penny and a rubber band could be used to turn a skirt into dismount-friendly shorts.

Jonny Ross-Tatam

Jonny Ross-Tatam: ‘Why We Shouldn’t Have to Work Just to Survive’

Ross-Tatam spoke of individuals being provided with a basic income to cover the necessities of daily life. This provision of capital would provide access to start-ups and allow for citizens to focus their time and energy on other productive projects which they care about and were previously unable to undertake.

Sophie DowSophie Dow: ‘Annie’s Syndrome’

When reporter Sophie Dow’s daughter Annie was born with learning difficulties, her ‘future took on new meaning.’ She talked about her work in creating the mental health charity Mindroom and also spoke of the ‘learning difficulties’ of wider society in giving children like Annie support and attention in learning.

Holly MaltbyHolly Maltby: ‘The Age of Beauty’

Final-year student Maltby delivered her talk on the subject of ageing and her own experiences working at an elderly care home. She shared stories about the need to ignore the negative side of growing old and instead to focus on the skills and beauty of older people in a climate where age is increasingly viewed as a negative and difficult part of life.

Craig MacFarlaneCraig MacFarlane: ‘Bugs for Life’

MacFarlane’s talk focused on the problems of feeding a rapidly-growing global population. He suggested the development of insect farming and consumption, stressing that insects are already eaten in two-thirds of the world and easily farmed in urban cities. It also identified the critical impact of a stigma towards insect-eating in Western countries.

Assaad Razzouk

Assad Razzouk: ‘The 100 Trillion Question’

Razzouk, Chief Executive of Sindicatum Sustainable Resources, spoke of the failure in the current climate movement and the indifference of global financial markets to climate change organisations. He believed that climate organisers should target ninety major pension funds in a targeted manner, emulating the successful HIV/AIDS campaigns of the 1980s.

Sethu VijaykumarSethu Visayakumar: ‘Shared Autonomy: The Robots Are Ready, Are You?’

Visayakumar talked of the challenges in developing robots with ‘shared autonomy’, able to sense the world. He showed how robots are increasingly able to exercise human tasks in an intuitive fashion, including the process of active learning and adaptation. This may have implications for ‘full autonomy’ robots in the future.

Jolyon MitchellJolyon Mitchell: ‘Swords Into Ploughshares: Arms Into Art’

Mitchell discussed his time in wartorn regions of the world as a BBC journalist and spoke of the ‘Arms Into Tools’ project in Mozambique, where weapons were being traded in huge numbers for tools. He then discussed how many of these guns were used as pieces of art, spades, guitars and even bike racks.

Steve EarlSteve Earl: ‘Stories We Write’

Earl highlighted his ‘Non-Fiction Science’ project, which shows that if individuals are engaged in a participative society, they had the ability to create their own stories. If young people are given space, they use it as an opportunity for experimentation. Therefore, improvement and ‘trying again’ are fundamental processes in human development.

Faith Liddell

Faith Liddell: ‘The Edinburgh Festivals: An Endless Experiment’

Director of Festivals Edinburgh, Liddell stressed the importance of collaboration between different organisers and constant experimentation to preserve the identity of each festival. This complexity has led to innovation in the arts, with the passions of 25 thousand artists putting on three thousand shows.





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