This is one of a series of projects initiated by Westminster Arts aiming to support people living with a dementia in attending/getting involved in arts events. It is a collaboration involving Wigmore Hall’s Music for Life programme and the Royal Academy of Music (RAM). Six sessions were planned, with the addition of a concert at the end of the fifth session and another at the end of the course.
The fifth session took place at the RAM (all the others were at the Wigmore Hall) and followed the same format as the previous ones. The sessions were programmed to last two hours, but the first half-hour (10.30 to 11.0) was purely social, with tea/coffee and biscuits provided. This ensured that members of the group were re-introduced to each other, and when the session proper began they had bonded. On this particular occasion there were 28 participants, 10 being people with dementia, 3 carers, and the rest were musicians and volunteers. Amongst the musicians were 7 instrumentalist students, 2 Fellows, and 2 members of staff. There were also 3 administrators present.
The format was as follows: first of all a warm-up vocal session, then two well-known songs led by the same member of staff; this was followed by an original song made up by the participants — a setting of a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and an accompaniment to a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti chosen and read by one of the people with dementia, with an improvised percussion accompaniment supplied by everyone else; then another person with dementia read one of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and the finale was a rhythmic Italian popular song.
Some of the participants stayed behind, and after a sandwich lunch, attended a free concert given by some of the RAM students. The last full meeting of the group would be in a week’s time and this would result in a recording with everyone receiving a copy.
The comic was not distributed on this occasion since it was advised that the word ‘dementia’ was not used during these sessions. 5 people with dementia filled in questionnaires, and 2 musicians; 5 musicians took questionnaires away with them.
Wigmore Hall 14th February 2014
This was the final session of this particular Music for Thought group, although the group were meeting again to attend a concert the following week. The session took place in the Bechstein room in the basement of the Wigmore Hall. This room is warm, comfortable, near toilets and easily accessible for those with mobility problems. Later in the session, the group moved into the concert hall itself for a recording of the songs they had been working on together. 10 people living with a dementia attended, most arrived independently without carers although spouses / children accompanied 2 participants.
During the opening tea and coffee the group seemed cohesive; there was a sense of camaraderie amongst participants, musicians, organisers and carers. Although initially I was an outsider, I was gently welcomed into the gathering. The son of one participant explained how his father had been ready since 6am. There was a palpable sense of anticipation and expectation amongst the group, perhaps due to the knowledge that this was a final meeting and that a recording of their performance would be taking place.
The importance of Kathryn Gilfoy’s role (programme manager of Westminster Arts) was apparent. KG ensured that participants felt secure as they arrived at the session and that they were comfortable with negotiating room changes. She also helped alleviate anxieties for participants who had to leave for other arrangements.
How do I love thee?
The group was encouraged to take their places in the circle of chairs that had been set up, musicians (including students from the Royal Academy of Music) sat at intervals between participants. A participant living with a dementia recognised that I was a new member and also that I was feeling slightly apprehensive about taking part. She greeted me warmly with an appeal to
‘Enjoy the day’.
The session started with the musicians guiding the group into vocal warm-up exercises. Some of these exercises were quite physical, involving gestures, movement and interaction (for instance participants mimed playing the piano together). Even those participants who were not as engaged as others seemed visibly more relaxed as they sang ‘Mim mim mim’ and were invited to make eye contact with those in the circle. Following the warm up the musicians started playing their instruments and the group practised their songs: ‘Come live with me and be my love’, ‘How do I love thee?’ an Irish jig using Edward Lear’s limerick ‘There was an old man with a beard’ and ‘Bella Mama’.
The energy of the musicians helped the group to coalesce and to meet through musical activity. The music also enabled a sharing and togetherness that may not have been possible if the group were simply meeting for social conversation. This was perhaps most apparent when the group was divided into smaller sections to facilitate singing ‘Bella Mama’ in parts. At this point, the participants gained a new, albeit fleeting, identity as part of a group within the wider group with responsibility for carrying a tune. Instruments were also handed out to participants for percussive music making; the same lady who had welcomed me in laughingly informed me: ‘The shaker will be your best friend.’
The boundaries of time were apparent throughout this session as the musicians were focused on practicing songs and then ensuring that there was sufficient time for the recording.
Into the concert hall
After a short break, during which some participants had more tea or coffee or went to the toilet, the group gradually made their way to the concert hall where chairs had been arranged on the stage. The group were welcomed back and invited to warm up (but briefly this time). The musicians and participants were all focused. A sense of occasion and perhaps slight anxiety was also tangible (the atmosphere was quite different from in the Bechstein room) this may have been conjured by sitting on the stage of the Wigmore Hall, underneath elaborate frescoes.
During the recording, it was noticeable that most participants for most (if not all) of the time were concentrating and caught in the ‘flow’ of the activity. Even those participants with less verbal ability were swaying with the music and using instruments rhythmically and appropriately. One participant in particular forgot her ‘tics’ because she was diverted by the activity. The participant who read out a poem that he had chosen gave a remarkably powerful and emotional performance.
In a memorable interlude, as the recording was drawing to a close (with only 10 minutes left) one of the participants who is living with an advanced dementia burst into spontaneous song (Jordy Johnson) which the musicians were able to respond to an instinctive and unconstrained manner. The group all joined in and this will be included in the final recording.
The lead musicians ended the session by thanking all the participants, one another and the Wigmore Hall.
View the programme here
Coffee, tea and conclusion
Most members of the group went back into the Bechstein room (some had left earlier for prior engagements). A participant living with a dementia noted:
‘The six weeks went very quickly’.
Once participants had all left there was a de-briefing conversation for the musicians. This allowed the Royal Academy students and more experienced group leaders time to reflect on the experience and confront some of the emotions that it had provoked.
One student commented simply ‘It’s a shame it has to stop’.
The final meeting of the group was on Sunday 23rd February when we met to socialise and also to attend a public concert of songs based on Goethe’s poetry.
The artist Abigail Jones came to the concert and final meeting of the Music for Thought group. She was enchanted by the story of Pipsin the canary related by one of the participants who lives with a dementia.