More than just gigging

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Dear all,

I got up at rather an ungodly hour to head down to London for an event related to a marvellous organisation called the Amber Music Trust with whom I’ve been working for a year or so. After my recent holiday (yes that’s holiday!) in Wales I’ve not gigged in the fullest sense of the word but I’ve been keeping up with two other key parts of my work – teaching and what I guess is called outreach.

Outreach music work has been an amazing part of my life. It started way back in my university days really so about twelve years ago. I was invited by my old pal James in Stafford to come and do a day of workshops at the school he worked at for children with learning difficulties. I was utterly new to this work and quite daunted but I had a cracking day and the impact on the kids was something that stuck with me. Happily, I’ve continued to visit that same school quite often to this day. Shortly afterwards I joined Live Music Now working with Will Pound, Nic Zuppardi and on my own together with a few collaborations. That charity comprehensively changed my life. I’ve blogged about it elsewhere (https://www.danwalshbanjo.co.uk/live-music-now-the-charity-that-changed-my-life/) so I won’t go into it too much here but essentially it involved playing in all manner of settings such as special needs schools, care homes, mental health wards, homeless shelters and hospitals. It was an amazing time and after my time on the scheme ended a couple of years ago, I was determined to stay in the sector alongside my gigging and teaching.

Happily I’ve been able to do that. Nic and I signed up with Music in Hospitals which works on a similar basis. It was with this scheme that Nic and I had a cracking day in Norfolk and Suffolk on Tuesday seeing music make a firm difference once again. In the morning we were in a centre for adults with mental health and learning difficulties and after an initial shyness there was dancing, singing and a request fest (which frankly put me on my toes rather a lot) and a sense that music had transformed the day. Then we were off to a dementia care home where as usual music worked a unique kind of magic. It is amazing to see people sing who barely talk any more. To see people dance who barely walk. To see people smile who do so all too rarely. The room was full of joy and it was a wonderful afternoon.

Playing for people with dementia has become more and more of a driving passion and this was something I was determined to keep up post-Live Music Now. It astonishes me the impact it can have and music works in a way you would think was impossible. Time and again, staff at care homes are amazed by the reactions of residents to music. It often triggers so many memories and reunites people with their personalities. I’ve been playing a lot of them lately and happily I have a few I’m visiting regularly. 

I’ve also become involved with Make Some Noise, a brilliant charity based in my old hometown of Stafford which brings music to children, often of troubled backgrounds, in the form of hands on workshops and projects. I’ve had a great time working with other musicians in various projects and last night I was in Lichfield as part of a weekly music club for kids, again many of whom have a hard time in life. We worked on a couple of cover songs with them and it was almost tangible the happiness and sense of achievement this brought. I was only covering here so I’m not a regular part of the project but it was palpable just how important these sessions have been and are to the children.

And finally, I’m also working with the Amber Music Trust whose musicians work one to one with a blind child and their family. The first child I was assigned to sadly suffers many health issues and sessions were frequently cancelled so I only got to work with her once but again music clearly brought joy. The child was very profoundly disabled but music brought a very cheerful smile indeed…then along came my next assignment. This was the main thing I wanted to blog about. It is very difficult to put into words how truly extraordinary the child I am now working with is. He is blind and has severe autism as well as a life limiting illness. Music is his life! He has a keyboard and has an amazing ability to hear a melody and then play it. He has ‘Echo’, one of those speakers you talk to and it plays you stuff…he utilises it rather a lot! He hears songs and if he likes them, he’ll play them! His repertoire is extremely eclectic – Ed Sheeran, Milo, the Animals, Stoke City football chants, fart noises…The way his mind works is fascinating. ‘Call and response’ isn’t particularly his thing. It’s not simply a case of play him something and he’ll play it back. He hears it and when he wants to play it, he will and often it’s a session or so later than when I’ve tried introducing him to it. He takes musical information in all the time when it’s not obvious that’s what he’s doing. He’s started playing chords and multiple octaves now as well as some mighty rhythm playing on my bodhran. Handily for me, he also loves the banjo! Our duetting is really forging ahead now whereas to begin with he tended to just play short melodies he knew. He sings too and playing music with him is a joy for me and much more importantly it seems to be for him too. He’s a very cheerful soul and roars with laughter at some of the slide effects I do on the banjo. His wonderful parents are keen to get him a banjo. I’d better watch out! Working with him is extraordinary and has been a remarkable experience for me.

It is wonderful to continue the outreach side of things alongside my gigging and teaching. I love performing and I like to think I reach people through that too but in many ways it’s for me. It’s my release and my story. What an honour it is to help others express theirs. Ain’t music wonderful?

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