The power of music

As many of you will know, and readers of this blog certainly will I am very proud alongside my regular touring and recording to do some work for the charity Live Music Now. The scheme enriches the lives of people through live music in care homes, hospices, hospitals, special needs schools, homeless shelters and even prisons. It has been some of the most rewarding work I have ever done for a few years now, but one particular residency has changed my life forever.

Recently, my partner in crime Nic Zuppardi (outstanding mandolinist) and I were asked to play a series of eight concerts at a care home in Surbiton for elderly people with dementia. We have always enjoyed our live music now work but I guess we were quite nervous about this one thinking about how to make the residency work. The first concert was really a session of sussing out the audience and what they enjoyed.

They were very receptive to our own material and nearly all seemed generally enthusiastic about us being there but there was a definite increase in reaction, understandably, when they knew the material already.

There were quite a few requests in the first couple of concerts, some of which we didn’t know. So we went away and learned those songs and they became real favourites in the concerts. On a purely personal note, I had an absolute wail of a time playing some old jazz stuff which I’d always wanted to do but never really had the reason to since leaving the university jazz orchestra six years ago! Fly Me To The Moon, Beyond The Sea, Autumn Leaves, St Louis Blues and Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off are songs that were a genuine joy to play and I’ve even played a couple of them at some solo gigs now.

It struck me throughout the whole residency how powerful music really is. Many of the residents were incoherent, didn’t know where they were sometimes, couldn’t hold much of a conversation and, painfully, some struggled to recognise their own family when they were present. But sing a song they knew and they sang it word perfect from start to finish. One lady particularly seemed to know the words to just about any song ever written and it became a lovely running joke/truth that she knew all the words when I didn’t!

As the residency happened, I came to realise that it went beyond the fact that the residents could remember song lyrics more than many other things. It gave them so much on an emotional level. I’m particularly thinking of Marjory, a generally quiet lady who struggled to know quite what was going on and seemed quite nervous. But when she sang, with a voice that was still utterly beautiful, she became a different person. Certain songs triggered it for her, particuarly When Irish Eyes Are Smiling which was not a song I was ever overly fond of but it was requested by one of the other residents so we learned it and I am so glad we did. The moment the song started Marjory would not only sing but a huge smile would come over her face and her arms would uncontrollably move with her singing. I find it so hard to describe watching Marjory in full flow – it was breathtaking and clearly gave her immense satisfaction and purpose.

The residency never stopped surprising me either. Certain residents who had seemed disinterested or unaware would suddenly show how much the music and the frequency of our visits had meant to them. One resident seemed very passive and then one week she couldn’t stop dancing in flamboyant fashion! Another appeared to be asleep most of the time yet Nic went up to talk to her and she asked him how Norwich was (where he lives) and how much she enjoys his mandolin playing! And most unexpectedly of all, a resident who seemed to really really not like us being there told us at the last session she always looked forward to us coming and would miss us. Extraordinary!

But most moving of all was the impact on the legendary Glen Mason. Glen was a singer and actor in the 50’s and 60’s and quite a big star in his day and is one of the residents in the care home. The residency was supported in fact by the Musicians Benevolent Fund who look after Glen. He is always full of smiles and warmth but sadly he is not always overly coherent and isn’t always aware quite what’s going on. After the first week we went away and learned an old hit of his called What’s Cooking Baby (see Glen singing it in a film in 1960 here: which we played at the second concert. Glen recognised it and by repeating the same line a few times we got him to sing along and he enjoyed that though it made him very emotional afterwards and us too for that matter. We learned a couple more of his songs through the residency, the real hit being Glendora which was his biggest hit back then and his favourite. He sang along very enthusiastically with this one and as the weeks went by needed less and less prompting. He seemed so happy and joyful at singing again as it was obviously still such a big part of him as was being a showman. He loved the attention as his songs were played and enjoyed it when I stopped singing and left a verse to him which the residents also really enjoyed. At the very end of the residency, we sang Molly Malone which had also been very popular with the residents through the concerts and Glen sang his heart out. I went and sat next to him on the last chorus and sang with him and I’m not ashamed to say there was a tear in my eye.

Nic and I had such a great time and felt such affection for the residents of the care home and indeed for the staff who deserve a special mention for being lovely and welcoming. We miss them and hope to go back there in the new year in some way. We made the residents very happy with our concerts. It also gave them a really exciting thing to look forward to every week and for many the benefits went beyond that. Glen, Marjory and others were able to express themselves again and to grow in confidence and stability. Not only did Glen sing again, but his conversation with us and apparently with staff when we weren’t there noticeably seemed easier for him once we started doing our concerts at the home. Nic and I really changed some lives during the residency and I hope the residents know on some level that they changed ours too.