Music's power to change lives
One of the highlights of my varied musical career is my involvement in the musical charity Live Music Now. I joined this scheme with Duo Hesperi (Mary-Jannet Leith on recorder and me on harpsichord) back in 2018. I still recall the audition every time I walk the back streets around Waterloo, as the audition was in the famous 1901 Arts Club. The audition involved performing pieces, but crucially showing our ability to interact with different types of audience. The harpsichord lends itself to excellent engagement with audiences of different kinds because it is not known to many people, and I remember a wonderful exchange and conversation with some of the panel about it.
Live Music now was founded by Yehudi Menuhin in 1977 and seeks to create inclusive, measurable social impact through music, providing workshops and creating partnerships in schools, care homes. As a duo, we have delivered sessions in care homes and special educational needs across the country, sometimes touring for a few days in a particular area of the country.
We are currently on our second 10 week residency in a care home. We were half way through a residency in Bromley when the pandemic hit, so we transferred the sessions online immediately. Although that residency had an unusual ending, we learned so much from it, and enjoyed getting to know residents and staff there, even composing a song for them based on words that one of the staff wrote. A clip of this ended up on BBC Radio 3’s ‘in tune’ when we were interviewed by Sean Rafferty about our work there. Here are the staff without us, early in those dark and difficult days of the pandemic performing it: https://www.facebook.com/EnsembleHesperi/videos/happy-happiness-park-avenue-care-homes-song/2839088732878602/
Fortunately the carehome we are working in now is fairly near home (it is in Kew) and therefore only a short trip for the harpsichord in the back of the car (yes, it fits in the back of a 7 seat car!).
The current project is designed to give confidence to staff members in leading musical activities, aiming to allow music to have a regular place in the day to day life of the home. It can be very easy for music to become a specialist skill, and for those with no training or specialist skill to feel that it is something they can’t get involved with. Our aim over the residency is to teach new skills to staff and to give them confidence to work together on bits of music in the future. All of this is done as we deliver music sessions in the main room to a group of about 15 residents.
So, the harpsichord arrives at the care home and gets set up in front of the TV (which is usually showing a morning show). We when talk through the session plan with the staff taking part and lead a 50 minute interactive performance with residents, focussing on the power of communal singing.
The residents of Cecil Court Care home are particularly fun to work with and the sessions can take all sorts of directions. One resident is especially keen on dancing, and joins us at the front for the entire session, usually helping choose the next song. Of course we take requests… our usual set list for a session might involve anything from ‘Que sera sera’ to ‘Frere Jacques’ to ‘she’ll be coming round the mountain’. ‘Summer Holiday’ sounds rather fun on the harpsichord!
Sessions with Live music now are always memorable, and often extremely moving because of the enormous power of music. Often I leave with a tear in my eye, quite honestly sometimes a strange mixture of something extremely touching or sad combined with an amusing moment. Literally anything can happen. I have seen residents very downcast at the start of sessions transformed by the ability of music to spark off a memory of 60 years ago, or someone completely motionless move a single finger or a toe to the music. This might be the biggest single reaction to anything in weeks.
We were given a budget from the charity to buy some percussion instruments for the home to keep (how fun it was to choose these!) even a mini rain stick made it in, alongside maracas, mini tambourines, triangles, shakers…
One week, we were taking the harpsichord down and casually mentioned “ten green bottles would be a good song for next week” to which a resident answered “we’ll do that one now”. Then came ten verses of gen green bottles at amusingly slow tempo (tip –
this one can speed up once you get to half way through!) which I found incredibly funny. The hour passes so quickly for residents and performers alike, and the conversation with residents as we set up and down is as important as the musical performances themselves. For the care home staff we work with, it is important to show them that we are human and all can make mistakes – music is above all about communication, and that involves taking risks and bravery.
I’m incredibly proud to be a musician with Live music Now, and for the adventures it has given. It is exhausting to deliver a session well, and my mind has to be in the right place, but incredibly rewarding. How does this fit with the rest of my musical life? This work is not separate to concert performances, it is the same musical skill of creativity and communication. It is grounding, and humbling to be a tiny part of this network of musicians doing such wonderful, transforming work.