These days there are so many references in the media to the importance of music and its effect on those living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. When I first started working as a musician in residential and nursing homes at the invitation of Hampshire County Council in 2001 there were very few references in the media to this essential work.
I had been working with an orchestra called the Bournemouth Sinfonietta as an oboist. When the Arts Council of England carried out a housekeeping exercise, and closed down my “elitist” orchestra, I could not have imagined what a surprising and fulfilling new life I would have ahead of me. The Bournemouth Sinfonietta had been a “community” orchestra and worked a great deal in schools in the South West of England and with communities in rural parts of the area. However like other orchestras in the country the “outreach” work that we undertook, when not on concert platforms, was almost never with the very frail and those having to live with Alzheimer’s.
As a classically trained musician with an orchestral background I was helped by many wise care home staff, the enthusiastic participants themselves, and often their family members to completely transform my comprehension of the power of music to engage and enliven the spirit. Discarding so many of my sacred cows resulting from my past classical “indoctrination” I discovered how to use the properties of rhythm, tempo, melody and lyrics as extraordinary ingredients. I learned, with a sense of almost daily excitement, that when combined with the emotional implications of so much happy, jubilant, reflective, witty, charming and serene music my groups could become transformed and taken over by laughter and surprising energy and remarkable memories. Without text books to consult I found that if I could free myself of my over trained preconceptions I would learn my most important insights about music from the very people I was supposed to be helping. I am in awe of the wonderful memory my group collaborators have for the music of their childhoods and adulthoods. Quite simply I had never imagined that anyone could know quite so many songs and lyrics by heart. As many of these participants are living with dementia my great wishes now have become to bring this to wider attention, and to understand how this is possible.
Over 9 years of working for Hampshire County Council, and delivering latterly 250 music sessions in the county annually, I had an education as great as that I had as a student in London, Paris and Berlin. When public cutbacks stopped my work in March 2011 I was fortunate to build up a stimulating monthly sequence of groups for the Alzheimer’s Society in the New Forest area of Hampshire. This has helped me to build on all I learned before and widen my “repertoire” exponentially! I now work for the most part with husbands and wives who care for their partners at home and I cannot easily convey what inspiring people these are.
In my blog I hope to discuss the ways we can use music in therapeutic settings. I will use many examples of the specific songs and pieces I use in my weekly sessions and discuss the responses these bring. I will talk about my lively starters, my reliable favourites, my songs of the isles, Irish gigs, Scottish dances, my use of recordings of rousing bands, the uplifting finishers and all the solos I play on oboe, cor anglais and saxophone, with both recorded accompaniments and handheld percussion instruments.
BBC radio and television covered work that I did for Hampshire and the Chief Executive visited a session in an EMI home in South Hampshire and described it as “awesome”. It was not I who was awesome, but the qualities of music when used appropriately truly are awesome. The special generation with whom I work are so completely identified with the special music from the 40s to 60s.