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Manchester Camerata’s work with people with dementia recently took its musicians to Tokyo to deliver training. Lucy Geddes reveals what they shared and what they learned.

Photo of playing music

The British Council

Manchester Camerata first visited Tokyo in 2015 as part of the British Council’s Arts for Ageing Society exchange programme, to gain an understanding of Japan’s approach to an ageing society.

We discovered that while the role of the arts within health and social care is understood by some Japanese organisations, the concept is foreign to most Japanese orchestras. Only one, the Japan Century Orchestra, has delivered a creative music-making programme in the past three years. Takuma, its community manager, expressed an interest in learning more about how we deliver our creative programmes with older people.

The level of communication the musicians had with the older people through music was fascinating

Takuma had to overcome many hurdles to allow the orchestra to implement this programme, and is the first person in Japan to work with a composer on orchestral community projects. There are other pockets of artistic activity happening in healthcare settings in Japan, but the organisations are not sharing their practice in a way that encourages others to take the risk.

Creative projects at home

Our musicians have worked with groups of older people in Manchester since 2010 to compose melodies, harmonies and lyrics of new songs. In 2012, we began our music therapy-based programme Music in Mind, which directly involves people living with dementia in improvisatory music-making sessions alongside their carers.

The University of Manchester, Coventry University and New Economy have each evaluated the project since 2012 and their findings have highlighted an improvement in mood, increased social interaction and more confidence to express oneself.

In its evaluation in 2014, New Economy described how one resident no longer needed medication after having music therapy. For another resident, who had been “extremely difficult to handle,” the first session was “the first time she had engaged properly with anything since her arrival [in the care home] and she became one of the most helpful and articulate members of the group”.

This learning has informed our work with older people and we will be delivering Music in Mind on an acute mental health ward at Royal Bolton Hospital and a composition project at Crumpsall and Wythenshawe Hospitals.

Our partnership with the University of Manchester has developed to work alongside PhD student Robyn Dowlen who is creating a tool to measure ‘in-the-moment’ embodied experiences for people living with dementia. We hope that by continuing to build a research base and refine our techniques, we can contribute to wider research being conducted about arts and health for people living with dementia.

Training and workshops

During the Japan project, flautist Amina Cunningham and composer Andy Smith delivered three training sessions with 12 musicians from the Japan Century Orchestra and the Kansai Philharmonic Orchestra.

We began by talking to them about a man with dementia, who was non-verbal, who had used his hobby Tai Chi as a way of moving to the music. Amina had emulated the shape, speed and height of his movements on her flute and created new melodies.

The Japanese musicians understood the idea straightaway and began to move and improvise in pairs. By the end of the session we had created a series of melodies and used some of them to form a song that would be part of some care home sessions we were doing later in the week.

The sessions in the care home were crucial as they allowed the Japanese musicians to contextualise their learning. It was at this point that the whole group understood why it is so important to use their wealth of musical skills in this kind of environment. The level of communication the musicians had with the older people through music was fascinating, and their willingness to lead a group had grown considerably.

Forum on community work

On the last day of the project, we took part in a forum and talked in depth about the progress that was made and how other Japanese artists can embed creativity into their community work.

We heard from a clinical psychologist at Doshisha Women’s University, Professor Kusaka, who had evaluated the project. She focused on the impact of the process on the musicians, which was extremely positive, and also on changes seen in the participants’ behaviour during the care home workshops.

Her model plotted these changes on a graph and showed, for example, that the number of times one participant smiled increased when the melody they had composed was played on the violin. Also, the number of questions asked to their carer decreased as they began to feel comfortable being able to participate in the activities.

Professor Kusaka is developing other ways of capturing people’s emotional responses during artistic activities, and we hope to collaborate with her in the future. We will also continue to support Takuma and the orchestral musicians as they include some of the processes they learnt during the week in their existing community practice and begin to set up new projects with older people.

Lucy Geddes is Community Manager for Manchester Camerata.

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Photo of Lucy Geddes