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Music makes meaning

Helen Preddy, Jewish Care’s Creative Arts Development Coordinator

Jewish Care has just begun a new project with Wigmore Hall’s Music for Life programme, continuing a long-standing partnership between the two organisations.  The offer of a fully funded, two-year residency in a Jewish Care home is an exciting opportunity to build an enduring relationship with the whole community, in and around the home.  Taking place at Jewish Care’s Vi & John Rubens House in Ilford, the aim of the project is to stimulate creativity and increase well-being for residents and staff as well as to strengthen community links by empowering individuals to come together through music.

From the outset, the project has been co-produced, involving residents, musicians, staff, volunteers and relatives.  We brought musicians to the home to offer wide ranging interactive music-making opportunities, observing, gathering feedback and together, developing a programme of activity which can be adapted along the way.

During the initial musically immersive afternoon, the care community experienced roaming musicians, community choirs, improvisation, relaxed concerts and even karaoke. The lift in the atmosphere in the home was tangible and we had enthusiastic responses in every workshop.  However, it was evident that roaming musicians could have a huge impact engaging one-to-one with residents who choose not to leave their rooms.  We also identified an appetite for a community choir.  The idea behind both of these initiatives is to build a sense of community and belonging, empowering individuals to participate and make musical choices with the professional musicians.

The emphasis is that this is a choir for everyone in the home, care staff, chefs, receptionists, managers, relatives and residents helping to strengthen the sense of community. Everyone is welcome to bring song suggestions and contribute according to their strengths and talents.

Specially trained musicians from Wigmore Hall’s Music for Life programme are also delivering intensive weekly visits, working with more isolated residents, visiting up to eight people a day in their rooms to connect through live music.

Luke Newby, a clarinettist who has been working on the project, will introduce himself to the resident and explain what he can do. He may be visiting people who are non-verbal or verbal.  Each session is different and Luke will invite residents to conduct him, talk about how the music makes them feel, or improvise, responding to facial or physical cues.

The emphasis of these sessions is on communication between musician, staff and residents. Luke responds to requests (he has been asked to play from a Jewish Prayer book) and invites people to improvise together with voice or percussion, creating opportunities to engage with the shape and feel of the instrument itself.  Sometimes he’ll see people visibly relax when he starts to play or he’ll see they are agitated and try something different to elicit a more positive response. Sometimes they don’t feel like it and then he will take the cue.

The musicians are extremely humble, open and receptive.  In the community choir and roaming musician visits, all parties are creating music together. There is no fixed structure and it’s as much about the musician listening as it is about playing or performing.  The musicians will improvise to create a live music experience tailored specifically to the space and the people present and although the experience has tremendous therapeutic effects, the Music for Life musicians are not trained music therapists. They bring themselves and their music and build connections. These benefits are felt reciprocally, musicians learn and grow from their involvement just as much as the resident.

When you see people sharing those moments of connection, with the individual musicians or part of a choir, you can see people flourish. It’s a point in time full of possibility and creativity and that’s the really positive feeling that we are striving for. It’s about bringing a sense of freedom and openness and celebrating the element of playfulness that this brings. It can be liberating for older people who may be living with dementia, worrying or feeling isolated because in that moment they are connected through music to others.




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