Do Care Homes Need Music, and Does it Matter Who Provides it?

Yesterday, I performed in a care home – something which I do as a regular part of my work. I have found this an inspiring and deeply meaningful part of my portfolio of activities. To illustrate exactly why, I recorded one piece using my phone on my music stand. Consequently, the sound quality is awful, but that is beside the point as this blog has nothing to do with my guitar playing. Obviously, I ensured there were no residents visible in the film (just me I’m afraid) and I won’t identify the home in question.

The home is a place for residents with varying challenges during their mature years. Some are very capable physically- and mentally-speaking; others are suffering the cruel symptoms of conditions such as dementia. Some are very able, but perhaps have limited options as to where they can spend their later years, and are seeking comfort and quality.

What amazes me about music is its ability to touch deep places within the mind, heart and soul. The recording you’ll see and hear is a section of my arrangement of ‘The Wild Mountain Thyme’. If you listen carefully (best is through headphones), you’ll hear people singing along. It is beautiful. How can it be that someone may be unable to remember their own family, or where they are, yet when information is accompanied by melody, something deep and profound is tapped into? I’ve had to limit the extract to 1 minute in this social-media world of ours, but you’ll get the idea if you listen closely.

We all know the joy of singing a melody from yesteryear. There are countless studies which prove the beneficial health effects of music making, from babies to those approaching the end of their lives.

The staff in such places are incredible. The work can be immensely challenging yet also deeply rewarding. They have to find ways in which to occupy the residents while they also do the cooking, cleaning, bathing and all the rest of it. Consequently, they often require diversion for the residents.

Musicians can play a significant role in the therapeutic and entertainment process. Many people volunteer to go and perform for residents but we must be careful. I am treading on dangerous ground here, but we must ask ourselves difficult and honest questions. I know that some musicians of very limited ability and experience visit care homes. They often volunteer (as I sometimes do) and we can see this as a generous gesture. Having said this, would we accept it if this type of musician went to play at a concert or in a restaurant? I think not. Staff will often joke about the clichéd ‘doddery old bloke with the Hammond organ’ who pops in every Thursday. It’s a good joke but should we accept this? Are we able to put ourselves in the place of the mature listener? I’ve heard staff say that essentially, they allow such performers to come for the performer’s benefit, rather than that of the residents. Even worse is if musicians go to a care home as an outlet for ego. I told you this was dangerous ground. I’ve come to believe that the ego is the biggest pitfall musicians of all qualities will encounter. As soon as the art becomes about the individual, a can of worms is opened: anxiety, arrogance, self-delusion and a host of other disagreeable elements can slip into a performance, but this is a subject for another blog. I know of some musicians who wheel out the usual fare such as ‘We’ll Meet Again’ or quite childish songs in care homes. If someone is 80 years plus, they’ll probably be much more interested in something classical or The Beatles than war time songs. Time moves on (an 80-year-old would have been a baby at the beginning of the war) and we must avoid being condescending. Let me clarify, there are many fine musicians with hearts of gold, but it’s up to the musician to ask him/herself what their motivations are.

Maybe the world of music education should further consider its role. A tour of care homes may be a greater education to a gifted young musician than any concert set up in a glamorous concert hall – perhaps the latter is done for the benefit of the parents (and their ego?) and the school’s reputation.

As always, the issue tends to be budget. There are charities who fund visits to such homes so that musicians can earn a professional and accountable fee, and residents are assured quality and integrity. If governments can direct decades of countless billions towards pharmaceutical giants who, in my view, have a scary amount of control, for treatment, can they maybe find a budget to fund arts in places where they are really needed? Whatever the case, I witness over and over again the joy and well-being music can bring to those in later life, and the touch of precious quality which it offers to people in the darkest of places, who deserve so much more.

Performing in Care Homes

Framed C4 PhotoToday, I played at a care home in our village. Since moving to Scotland, this has become an important source of employment for me – not necessarily financially speaking, but in terms of giving me a moment to reflect on what I do and why I do it.

Playing in care homes can be challenging. Some residents are in much physical discomfort and others are suffering the cruel effects of dementia and its associated illnesses. I have come to recognise how challenging it must be to work in a care home. Employees have to balance compassion and understanding with their own vulnerability as human beings.

As a result of the working environment, the performance conditions can be very challenging. Staff must continue their everyday work, relatives come to visit – perhaps failing to recognise the nature of a performance environment and residents may sing along with the musician. I’ve also noted that the temperature tends to be very, very warm – obviously limbs in later life get colder more easily. I’ve had to deal with sweaty fingers and strings going very out-of-tune. These are all alien concepts to those with a classical training but I have come to believe that working in such an environment can be humbling and reminds us of how fortunate we are to be doing the work which we do.

I am lucky enough to work in The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland where the students are simply a joy. Such institutions set up wonderful performance opportunities for their students (as they did for me many moons ago) but I must say, I wonder if we should be encouraging them to serve their community and to take opportunities which remind them of how blessed they are. Being a musician can, and should be, hard work. Giving those in their formative years incredible and positive experiences can be a real inspiration to students, but maybe a few challenges of an unexpected nature thrown in could be beneficial in the long-term.

Today, I went with a portfolio of about thirty pieces and selected half of these as I went along. It is great training to try to evaluate the mood of an audience and respond accordingly.

Finally, playing in care homes means that we give something of real worth to those who truly appreciate it. It won’t necessarily gain you credibility with the ‘in-crowd’, but if you do a good job, you will leave with the satisfaction of knowing that your efforts are valued and appreciated.