Songs without words

I was doing OK. I hadn’t cried. No emotional involvement, lots of interaction and smiling. But there was this one woman, well-dressed and beaming, not that old. She didn’t sing along but she was loving the music. Next to her was a younger woman (her daughter, as I later found out – the lady had only been moved to the home days before). She was holding her mother’s hand and smiling at her whilst tears poured and poured down her face. I had to walk away and do an impromptu tango in the middle of the room.

Lost Chord is a charity which uses music to increase awareness and self-esteem in dementia sufferers. Dementia is without doubt one of the most devastating diseases of our century. The training day for Lost Chord took place in Nightingale House, a Jewish residential home, beautifully-maintained, full of care and consideration. Any of those residents could have been my relatives. One man remembered the bakery our family used to own in Edgware. I was physically and emotionally drained at the end of the day, and pretty nervous about how my first tour was going to go. So I planned. Oh, I planned. Hours of shuffling music around, putting medleys together, discarding, adding and also borrowing bits of percussion from all over the place.

We had four gigs booked for one day, scattered over Suffolk. Four care homes, all with different rooms and acoustics, all with residents of differing stages of the illness. In one home a budgie in a cage sang along with me. I wanted to let it out and set it free – I hate seeing caged birds. And what a cliche that turns out to be. The lovely residents, many of whom danced and clapped and shook maracas or sleighbells were as caged as the budgie, trapped in an illness that has no cure, only a slow decline of every faculty you have.

The room was a mixture of early and late-stage dementia and probably the most challenging of the four gigs – around 40 people (plus staff and visitors), and the Lost Chord ethos is that you interact with each one of them, pretty much all through the hour-long concert.  So I ended up doing laps, making sure I didn’t miss anyone out and if they can’t move or dance, you hold their hands, kneeling down in front of them and making the strongest connection possible.  There were two men, one maybe late 60s, the other a lot older.  They both held toys.  The younger man had a stuffed tiger, the older one a plastic doll.  They cuddled them like children, they held them as protection and perhaps as the last thing left to them, either in reality or wherever they were in their memories.

I wanted very badly to engage these two fractured men.  None of the songs I’d done so far (mixing up show songs, bit of classical, bit of Elvis) seemed to touch them.  Then I played the mastercard – a World War 1 medley I’d pretty much cobbled together the night before.  I’ve avoided WW1 songs in all my other seniors sessions – it feels patronising to go ‘oh you’ll love this’.  Why would they?  Most of them weren’t even born then.  One brilliant woman said when I rolled up at a session in Borehamwood “Please don’t give us any of that war rubbish – we’re bored to the back teeth with Vera Lynn,” so they get Elvis, Bill Haley, the Rat Pack and Barry Manilow.  This was different.  I started with Tipperary and the room lit up.  Everyone was clapping, smiling and singing.  I homed in on the man with the tiger.  He almost smiled.  He started to mouth the words. I stayed with him for the rest of the song.  Then I went to the back where the man and his doll were.  I knelt beside him, sang “If You were the Only Girl.”  And he looked at me, and began to mouth the words.  It was the same in all four homes – those were the songs that did it.  I was talking to my mother about it afterwards and she said, “But all those songs were in films when we were children.  Their parents probably sang those songs to them.”

So what happens to our generation?  What songs will we get?  Blur, Adele, Elton John?  What are the songs that bind us, that will make a room a place of collective joy.

There are countless studies being done on the effect of music on people with dementia and Alzheimers.  It’s a bit of a thing at the moment, lots of money being earmarked, and that’s brilliant.  And everyone wants to do their own thing, have their own spin and that’s brilliant too.  But Lost Chord has pinpointed the thing that matters most.  These are individuals – they had lives, joys, loves and griefs.  They had more stories than we can ever know.  They sit with dolls and toys and their thoughts are god knows where.  But when I knelt beside them, and held their hands and sang into their eyes, they lived joyously within that instant, if only for that instant.


Music as transformation

A close family friend died today, very unexpectedly.  I’d known her for years, and music was a shared part of our knowing, as her husband sang with the Zemel Choir, a mixed-voice Jewish choir that has been part of my life since I really knew what music was.  My father was Concert Manager for 25 years, and the whole Eckman clan (Jewish Von Trapp Family Singers) have sung with Zemel.  My mother and niece still do.  My father died 21 years ago.  It hurts to write that, even now.

This afternoon, I went off to run a workshop at a homeless centre.  I wasn’t looking forward to this at all, partly because I wasn’t in the singing zone and partly because last week’s session had been a shambles.  Fortunately, following a – shall we say stern – email from me, things were different this week.  Chairs set out, heating on, floor cleaned, Clavinova back in place,  support staff member present and, most importantly, participants who were up for anything, including a rhythm lesson, lots of improvisation and some harnessing of their inner hippie.

I’d chosen the music carefully (i.e. planned a whole two hours in advance instead of as often happens, in the car or the train down when I haven’t had time to think about it.  Honestly, it’s always fine.  Really it is.)  I wanted to cheer myself up.  We’d been doing some work on Ravel’s gorgeous, magical opera L’Enfant Et Les Sortileges, but I wasn’t in the mood  for it today, so I went for the sunny, flowers-in-your-hair Aquarius from Hair  and Gershwin’s equally sunny, joyous, I Got Rhythm.  They both went down a treat, and at the end of the session I was dreading, I went home buzzing with its success, but more importantly, with music.

Music is so much a part of my life that I don’t often listen at home.  When I do listen, I try to do so with attention, not as an adjunct to something else. Unless it’s baking, since nothing says chocolate brownie like Seth Lakeman.  Next month, I perform my first gig with the inspirational charity Lost Chord, which sends musicians and singers into dementia care homes.  The training day for this was in a Jewish care home in South London and was gut-wrenchingly, heart-breakingly hard and also beautiful.  Any of the residents could have been members of my family.  I sat with a lovely man who actually remembered our family bakery in Edgware, although he couldn’t remember that he was 91 that day.  “How old am I?” he asked.  “How old do you want to be?” I replied.  “21.”  So he was 21 every time he asked the question.

The residents loved the concert – they recognised songs, they danced, they laughed, wept and clapped.  As part of our induction day, we had to come up with a ten-minute performance.  I’d chosen Jewish songs, ones that I’d sung with Zemel, that are part of my history, and theirs.  They joined in and cried and danced.  It was lovely, apart from the mortifying  moment when I said: “I’m sure you’ll all remember this one…”

The more time I spend running workshops, the more I realise how astonishing music is.  It bonds people in different ways.  It is memory and emotion and feeling.  It can lift you out of sorrow, it can take you away from the fact that last night you slept on the streets and will do again tonight.  For a couple of hours, you can be somewhere else, with jazz, opera and musicals.  I’ve done Britten and Sondheim, Gershwin and Elvis.  I’ve watched people sob as I sing something that reminds them of who knows what?

It’s not the same as doing a musical, a play or a gig.  It’s endless challenge and thinking ahead all the time in case something’s a bit shit and you need to change it before they get bored/fall asleep/go for a fag. But the music glues it all together.

There are people in the world who never listen to music, don’t get it, don’t like it.  Too bad for them.