It’s an end of an era for me as after eight years of being a musician on the Live Music Now scheme, April marks my departure. Most musicians are only on the scheme for about half that time so I’ve had an extremely good deal, largely owing to the end of my duo Walsh and Pound (which I joined the scheme with) coming three years into my time on the scheme so my new partnership with mandolin maestro Nic Zuppardi was treated as a new beginning.
To assess the impact of Live Music Now for me, it’s worth remembering how I came to join it. I have to hand it to Will Pound really who very much pushed to me that we ought to apply to go on the scheme. For those not in the know, Live Music Now was created in the 1970s by the great Yehudi Menuhin. The scheme auditions top musicians at the beginning of their careers and if they take them on, trains them and pays them to play in places where music makes a profound and lasting difference and brings music to those who are often deprived of it. I did like the idea of that of course but I would be lying if I said that the fact that it would involve paid work at a time when I was struggling to get enough didn’t play quite a role in deciding to go for it!
I could never have realised just how powerful it would be. My experience of working in settings such as care homes, hospices, rehabilitation centres, mental health wards or special needs schools was almost zero barring one day of workshops at a special needs school in Staffordshire. That day had given me a very strong hint of the power of music to those in need but the number of remarkable experiences I’ve had since is simply too high to count. After mine and Will’s audition and training, our first gig was in a centre for profoundly disabled children in Birmingham. I will never ever forget the moment when I played the banjo right up close to this little boy and this wide eyed ecstatic grin came over his face. I promise I’m not exaggerating or posturing when I tell you there are tears rolling down my face right now as I write about it! That was the moment when I realised the power of music.
Much of mine and Will’s early gigs were in special schools of varying kinds. We often ended up doing gigs where we felt like the Beatles with screaming cheers and uncontrollable dancing! The facial expressions, the joy, the movement – it was incredibly powerful stuff. We were introduced to playing music for older people in care homes (including those with dementia) more gradually and one of my earliest memories of doing so was actually in an intergenerational project in Evesham. We visited a middle school in the morning and then a sheltered housing block later in the day for a number of weeks before we brought everyone together for the last few weeks culminating in a concert. It was tremendous fun and one moment I particularly recall was the sight of an 85 year old man showing a 10 year old boy how to play a washboard! A fine example of bringing generations together through music.
I think in those early days, it was special school work that really made me tick (and don’t get me wrong it still does) but I think as time went on the care home work started to move me more and more and perhaps became more of a driving passion for me personally. This coincided loosely I suppose with the change of duo on the scheme. In many ways, I think Walsh and Pound was more suited to the school environment as the harmonica worked brilliantly in that setting and our lively in-your-face show also tended to create a lot of excitement. With Nic came perhaps more of a suitability to the care home setting owing to his superb jazz playing and the softness of the mandolin.
Our first care home work in this duo was a residency (i.e. a series of concerts over a period of a few weeks) in a Surrey care home that was to change our lives forever not to mention inspire arguably my best song. At our first concert there, we were informed that one of the residents – Glen Mason – was a singer and actor who had had quite a lot of fame and fortune during the 50s and early 60s. He was now suffering with dementia but was in fine spirits, always smiling and joking and he retained fond memories of his time in the spotlight. Nic and I did a bit of research after that first session and managed to find a couple of his old songs and we brought them into the set. His initial reaction was one of wide eyed delight followed by tears (from us as well as him!). We kept doing them and with each week he joined in more and more, going from joining in tag lines to singing whole songs and I recall one magical moment when he was singing with such gusto we stopped singing and just accompanied him. He proclaimed ‘this is one of the best days of my life’. His humour came through more and more with each week and he talked about his past more and more despite his illness rendering him ostensibly on the decline. Music emphatically stalled that decline and it was wonderful to see Glen rediscovering himself.
He wasn’t the only one either. Several of the residents had fine voices and were clearly massively moved by the music. One – Marjory – was extraordinary when she burst into song. A seemingly passive presence at times, the beginning of a song she recognised saw her burst into life with arms gesticulating and a fine voice working its magic. Like others, it seemed to stimulate her memories and enabled her to rediscover her personality and her identity. What also struck me about the benefits of a residency was how people who seemed to be unresponsive to music suddenly burst into life come week 5! One lady particular always stays in my mind – Jean never moved a muscle then on our fifth visit she suddenly let rip on the dance floor! Another lovely by product of this particular project was our own repertoire vastly broadened thanks to so many requests and formed the basis of many memorable subsequent concerts with Live Music Now. Songs such as When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, St Louis Blues and even Glen’s own Glendora became staples of our care home work. Glen sadly died 18 months on from our residency. It’s great to keep his legacy alive by playing Glendora and he inspired my song The Song Always Stays.
A similar project in Oxford followed with similarly memorable results. There is now very little debate around the fact that music is enormously beneficial to those suffering from dementia but one area that is often questioned is whether that benefit lasts beyond the 45 minutes or hour that the musicians are there. Now firstly I would say that even if that is the case it is worth it to bring that benefit for that hour but from what I have seen from these residencies the effects last far longer. We have been told countless times by care home staff that residents have talked more between music sessions, shared more of their memories, felt happier and more worthy and have anticipated the upcoming visits from musicians. Better still, it helps to bring the entire group together thanks to the shared experience. Our elderly care home residents deserve to be entertained. An hour’s music truly can change lives.
While our care home work had a profound effect on us, memorable school projects also continued. Perhaps the pick of the bunch with Nic was the Brent project – working in a particular special needs school in London culminating in a huge concert at Wembley Arena involving hundreds of children! We did a disco version of Beethoven! Again the feeling that we were giving people a sense of worth and an outlet was extraordinary. A residency enables musicians to really get to know the characters and see the profound changes that can happen. I recall a girl who massively struggled to begin with to play a crash cymbal in time – by the end she had not only got to grips with that but was playing some complex rhythms and was ecstatically happy with her progress.
I also have to pick out the Vision and Voice project in South Wales. This was a songwriting project in a school for children with behavioural difficulties the aim of which was to write a couple of songs, record them and produce a video for each. This wasn’t with my usual comrade Nic but with newcomer to the scheme John Nicholas, a fine singer/guitarist. I was nervous about this one after that aforementioned tough week in the Northeast at behavioural schools and with the added knowledge that I was now supposed to be the experienced one! It turned out to be the most wonderful project with so many memorable characters who blossomed throughout the project. Of all people, these students needed boosting and that certainly seemed to be what happened. Another example of music changing lives and while I in absolutely no way at all miss that beastly six hour round trip, I do miss the people involved in the project!
Late on in my time on the scheme, Nic and I did a week in Teeside and North Yorkshire at mental health wards and it really was one of the best weeks I’ve ever had. I have a keen interest in mental health – I had a bad period of depression during my early 20s and have always retained an interest in the subject and a feeling that it is an area I would like to work in one day. Visiting these wards was a big reminder of my love of both music and helping those with mental health needs. Like many Live Music Now gigs, the conversations were almost as important as the music. Again, people seemed to feel very valued and their confidence boosted.
Live Music Now on a purely practical level, was invaluable in helping me to make a living from music in my early days and even in more recent times it has still been a good income stream which I will miss! This was an important part of Menuhin’s vision. In the end though, what I will treasure most from Live Music Now are the emotional memories. I watched music change lives and make people happy who badly needed to be happier. What it reminded me of as much as anything is that we are all human beings. We can all fall on hard times and it often happens mightily fast. Music more than just about anything can powerfully change the course of lives and either ease or allow a way through those hard times. Of course, repertoire and show were adapted to some extent depending on the audience but essentially the principle of not patronising audiences of Live Music Now gigs was a guiding one. I took the attitude that I would go into these places and play music I believed in, inviting people to join with it, listen to it, dance to it and give these people the time we all deserve. Thank you Live Music Now for these wonderful years – they haven’t just changed the lives of many audience members, it has changed my life.