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Players in Stratford's Orchestra of the Swan are trained by charity Mindsong to provide music sessions in care homes. Sue Pope explains how the programme supports wellbeing.

Photo of musician with large brass instrument and older person

Since 2014, Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS), based in Stratford-upon-Avon, has been working in close partnership with Mindsong to develop music sessions for care homes in central England for people living with dementia and their carers.

Player training includes advice on choosing suitable repertoire and guidance in using music to connect with people whose verbal communication has declined

The partnership has its roots in the 2014 Worcester Three Choirs Festival, when Mindsong trained and supported two of our players to work as a duo, providing four weekly sessions in two dementia care homes in Worcestershire. Mindsong evaluated the sessions by using its observational rating scales to measure the levels of wellbeing and engagement achieved by clients. This evaluation confirmed the positive benefits of the activity and enabled Mindsong to continue its work with us, training additional players and refining content.

Since then the series has grown, with projects delivered in care homes throughout Birmingham, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, as well as across Herefordshire from this autumn.

Dementia training

Each dementia series follows the original model, being led by two professional players who have received dementia awareness training, mentoring, support and guidance from Mindsong’s team of dementia specialists and professional music therapists.

Mindsong music therapist Fiona Taylor is a former professional musician and her performance background enables her to communicate with the players at their level, with an understanding of the challenges they face when working in close contact with clients. As a former GP, Mindsong’s Clinical and Creative Director Anthea Holland adds expert insight into dementia and the challenges that advanced dementia may present, as well as an introduction to the care home sector and the demands of playing in care homes.

Player training includes advice on choosing suitable repertoire and guidance in using music to connect with people whose verbal communication has declined. It also includes an escorted visit to a Mindsong partner care home to play for residents, providing the musicians with the opportunity to undertake their first live session in a safe and supportive environment, with a Mindsong therapist on hand throughout to observe, advise and assist.

Training finishes with an evaluation, which encourages players to reflect on their experiences during the session, ensuring their own wellbeing is protected.

Positive impact

This ever-developing partnership enhances the players' understanding of the progression of dementia in residents, while actively promoting the positive impact music can have on people with dementia.

A player, on being asked if there were any memorable moments from a session, commented: “Playing for J, her condition had changed considerably since last week, she had become bedbound, but she still made the effort to sing and talk to us about her favourite pieces. It was a very emotional experience for us both but reiterated why we do this job.”

Feedback from residents is equally positive: “Of all the music in my life, these sessions with you have touched me the most. You make such a bond with me and take me to a different place.”

Team effort

Since 2014, our players have delivered over 300 care homes sessions in venues across the Midlands, with more projects being developed as part of our new ‘immersive residency’ model. This model actively integrates participatory community and learning activities - in which the dementia series plays a major part - with our formal concert programming.

Twenty-one of our 36 core players have been trained and are regularly leading sessions in homes and community settings for us. Delivering this work is a team effort, involving all staff and players in developing sessions, securing funding, managing projects, liaising with care home managers and activity coordinators, collecting and evaluating feedback and promoting our work.

We are well on our journey to becoming a dementia-friendly organisation - something we could not have achieved without Mindsong.

Sue Pope is Learning & Participation Manager at the Orchestra of the Swan.

Principal funders of the partnership are the Linbury Trust and the Lapid Trust, together with 15 other generous trusts.

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Photo of Sue Cope