From timpani to telephone: embracing life as a Coronavirus volunteer

Janet Fulton’s been Manchester Camerata’s Principal Percussionist since the mid-1980s, but over the past few weeks she’s taken on a different role, fielding phone calls at the Yorkshire Ambulance Control Centre to support their Coronavirus response effort.

Here, the 1982 alumna and RPS/ABO Orchestral Player of the Year shares the diary of a typical week with us.

Janet receiving the RPS/ABO Salomon Prize. Photo credit: Royal Philharmonic Society

I already volunteer as a Community First Responder, and since all my security checks are up to date,  I am happy to be able to help out on the front line in this time of crisis.

That’s not to say I’ll be giving up looking for opportunities to perform – I might well find an outdoor space and play with a notice asking for people to go home and donate to the Yorkshire Air Ambulance online if they enjoy it! But I am glad to be able to do something to help at this uncertain time, whether musically or not.

Here’s a week in what I’ve been calling this ‘Parallel Universe’ we’re living in, versus what I would have been getting up to in the ‘Old World’ each day:

Sunday (Mother’s Day)

Old World: Have children up from Birmingham for the weekend. Load van. Encourage them to help.

Parallel Universe: Ring round all the care homes and community homes that Manchester Camerata have been working at for the last few months in Withernsea, Hornsea and Patrington, to send love and best wishes to residents and staff. They are all now closed to visitors.


Old World: Meditation Concert in an old converted chapel in the Peaks for parents and babies with Concerteenies.

Parallel Universe: Get up at 6am and drive for an hour to Wakefield, Yorkshire Ambulance HQ. Spot mainly builders’ vans coming towards me on the small country roads, most with two people in, which kind of erases the value of social (what actually should be called physical) isolation.

More traffic on the M1 and A1 than I was expecting, but room enough for some daft drivers passing at a rate of knots. Eight hours training in a classroom, the same tomorrow. Huge amount of information being thrown at us, leaves our heads spinning.

When you dial NHS111 at the moment, you are asked to choose between Coronavirus calls, and all others. We are being trained to answer the COVID-19 calls only. We therefore also need to know what to do if someone presses the wrong button. The trainers are taking as read that we know how to speak to patients, since as Community First Responders (CFRs), we are already up to speed with that, along with other skills.

The only light relief was hearing about a person who had stocked up with pasta from the shop, then read it was made in Italy. ‘Was it safe to eat?’, she had rung 111 to ask.

On the way home go to a supermarket for the weekly shop. No protection as yet for the shop workers. One father walks through in front of me with his two children in tow, the daughter is tapping each of the bollards on the way in. Wonder about saying something but hold my tongue. Then wonder whether that was the right decision. On duty for the Ambulance Service overnight as a CFR.


Old World: Unload van, put in four timpani and drive to Ripon Cathedral to drop them off in a corner in advance of a concert on Saturday. Return and load the van for the next day. Drive to Manchester.

Parallel Universe: Second day of training. Roads much quieter today, more people getting the message. Bombarded with more information. New vocabulary to learn. Out with the crescendos and andantes, in with the unavailability of warm transfers, depositions and pathways.

Normally I listen more to speech programmes in the car or van, but have a real need to listen to an orchestra. Driving home I am desperate to listen to some Elgar, turn on the radio, and it is Lux Aeterna the vocal arrangement of Nimrod. Perfect.

At home, due to my husband being in his 80s, I have a decontamination zone; a different back door where I take off my coat, top and security pass, wash my hands and arms, put anti-viral foam on, then go back to the car and collect my phone and so on that I take with me but don’t take into the building. We are sleeping in different areas, and have the luxury and security of two bathrooms. We keep the social distance in the house as much as possible too. On duty overnight as CFR.


Old World: Arrive at Stoller Hall early, and set up and then play in two Camerata rehearsals that day. Stay over in Manchester.

Parallel Universe: Into the main call centre area today, generally working on our own in test mode trying to learn all the procedures. When one of the senior advisors listens to me make my first live call, she realises that I have a lot still to learn and so we all have to do more practise!

We are all different ages and backgrounds, but except for those using the course as a refresher, most of us are still very tentative about the correct procedures. Come home rather deflated, it seems such a big thing to pick up, and well aware of the responsibility.

However, the running information on the wall is showing how many people are giving up calling 111 whilst on hold, so we know we really must keep going. There are many people not able to come into work due to the restrictions, for various reasons too. On duty as CFR. We are not being sent to COVID-19 calls, so it continues to be quiet.


Old World: Rehearsal and concert at Stoller Hall. Pack up, drive home, unload and reload for a school visit tomorrow, taking over 100 instruments. Anticipate will be doing this until about 1 in the morning.

Parallel Universe: Sit with a trainer and take a series of calls, with feedback in between. The trainer is able to jump in any time, or hold you up if you are going down the wrong route.

Dispatch two ambulances and organise doctors and health and clinical advisors to speak to callers after triage. Then double rather than single click on one answer only to find that an ambulance is being sent because I have also clicked the next page without knowing, which says the patient is unconscious.

Rectified immediately by the very patient trainer. Will suggest when things calm down that the answer bars are offset on alternating pages, to avoid people like me making mistakes!

Told that I am apologising too much – ‘sorry to keep you waiting, sorry for the delay…’ I am very conscious of pauses whilst I write things in. My spelling, I am told is good, but I note to learn how to spell ’emphysema’ back home.

I explain to a couple of people that I am training (which is also an incorrect thing to do), so need to seek advice, and put them on hold. At the end of those calls they both say a similar thing: ‘Tell your trainer you should be top of the class’.

When people are that thoughtful whilst going through so much, it says a lot about them. I finish the day listening in to a seasoned professional, she smoothly navigates through calls with clarity, taking half the time I am. I have been warned already not to worry about that, do it in my own ‘rhythm’. The first link to music all week…

On duty overnight as CFR.


Old World: Arrive at a school in North Yorkshire, working for Sowerby Music Society’s Music for Life programme. Unload and set up, it normally takes around 90 minutes, so there by Do a full assembly for an hour.

Then have one set of children, the musical/curricula topics being bespoke for that class. Clear the hall so that the dining staff have room to move. Reset and give another workshop on a different topic. Bring both classes together, a small rehearsal, and then they perform to the rest of the school. Pack up and drive home. Unpack some instruments and repack for tomorrow.

Parallel Universe: Am on the second shift today, so when the trainers go home, they very kindly find me someone to come off calls and supervise me taking live calls until 6.30pm, then she finds someone else to help me until 8pm.

That kindness and investment of time is what I have needed and get. It is also comforting to know that even with over a decade of experience, that there is one call that we both need help to know what to do.

The people who normally work for 111 are working about 12 hour shifts. They are expected to do 6 hours, have 30 minutes off, then back on track. I think of my professional paramedic colleagues collecting some of the patients I am sending them to. They are risking their lives, as are the others down the chain. Don’t go on duty tonight, since tired and only have 10 hours at home.


Old World: Drive to Sheffield, arriving at 9.30am. Unload huge amount of instruments, then two 45-minute Concerteenies concerts, the first for babies 0 – 2, the second for 3 – 4-year-olds. Pack up quickly and drive to Ripon Cathedral where I left the Timpani on Tuesday. Rehearsal and concert with the Ripon Choral Society and Orchestra d’Amici. Leave timpani at Cathedral. Drive home, will pick up tomorrow once the van is unloaded.

Parallel Universe: Am told I am going to be tested for signing-off today. Allowed to ‘warm up’ with a couple of calls, then off we go. Give one apology, but the trainer only smiles when I hold my hand up when I am doing it.

And then, there I am, no-one listening in. It is like the first time you drive by yourself after taking your test. I am half looking around waiting to be given permission to go, but no, that is my responsibility now. However, there is always someone hovering to help, wouldn’t be able to function without them. Take a deep breath, press the available button, and…

Drive home rather sombrely. Ignore ANYONE who says it is all a fuss about nothing. And friends are reporting of people they know who are saying exactly that, and flouting the rules.

We need to take any advice we get seriously. I now have heard exactly what it is like. Deeply aware of the responsibility now, just at the start of the steep learning curve. Thank you to all those risking themselves for others.

31 March 2020