Vivien Conacher is a professional opera singer (mezzo-soprano), who trained at the Royal College of Music. In 2016 she founded Songhaven, a dementia-friendly concert series based in Bloomsbury. In this blog she reflects on how her involvement in the School of Advanced Study’s Bloomsbury Festival in a Box project inspired her to undertake more community engagement work in arts and health.
‘Where words fail, music speaks.’ I have believed the truth of this quote for a long time, but it wasn’t until I worked with people living with dementia that I think it truly hit home.
As a professional musician I always assumed that the operas and concerts I performed in were inclusive, welcoming, and respectful of older generations. I thought classical music was for everyone… but then again, I have also been at numerous events where the slightest cough or whisper was met by a hissing ‘shhhhh’ from a nearby audience member, often louder than the original disturbance. Audience etiquette in the classical world can be fierce and unforgiving.
Live music, of course, deserves respect and reverence. When music starts to play, ringing out from total silence, this can feel like magic. A pause can be spellbinding, the last chord of an orchestra slipping into nothingness can make a whole audience hold their breath. This magic is probably the highest ideal we can aspire to as performers. But live music is also about coming together and sharing an experience with other people. Imperfect, unwell, stressed, distracted, fidgety people. People who may be dealing with challenging conditions like dementia, but who may find immense comfort in live music events.
Striking a balance
So how can we as performers balance our artistic ideals and high-calibre engagements, with generosity, openness, and warmth? I believe the answer lies in community engagement work: finding (and creating) opportunities to share our art with people who may not have access otherwise.
Several years ago I was asked to participate in a new project called Festival in a Box (FIAB). The project is a collaboration between the Bloomsbury Festival, the School of Advanced Study, and AgeUK Camden and they were seeking artists to visit people living with dementia. These people would have been unable to enjoy any Bloomsbury Festival events in person, but would likely enjoy (and benefit from) interacting in some sort of creative/artistic/cultural activity. I visited a lady who loved music, and I’ll never forget my first private concert to her in her living room. She kept eye contact with me the whole time as I sang. It was a very intimate experience, with two people finding a direct connection through live music.
Creating a (Song)haven
After that visit, I started doing more community work, specifically for people living with dementia. I have done more FIAB artist visits each year, given opera workshops for Arts4Dementia, sung at my local community centres, and led weekly singalong sessions for my local dementia group. I have also started my own dementia-friendly concert series called Songhaven, which has gained a devoted following since launching at the start of the year. Our Songhaven audience members know they won’t be tutted for making a noise or moving during a concert, which means that live music is (once again) something that these music lovers are able to enjoy freely. We perform in an accessible venue, during the afternoon, and present programmes filled with uplifting repertoire that people know and love.
The atmosphere is always welcoming and inclusive – and although the performers are high-level professionals, the communication with our audience is always friendly and warm, rather than formal or rigid. My favourite part of a Songhaven concert is our final number, always an audience singalong with large-font lyrics printed in the programme so people can join in. The exuberant joy of everyone in the room singing together never fails to be a moving and special experience for me. We then enjoy a post-concert afternoon tea together – audience members mingle with the performers, share their stories, and suggest any favourite songs for future concerts. I have never felt so connected to my local community, or so appreciated for my music-making.
Where words fail, music speaks
Through community engagement work, I have also met some truly amazing people, who happen to be experiencing dementia in some way. There are big personalities, hard-working carers, and knowledgeable music lovers with fierce intellects… All have, without exception, shown me incredible kindness. I have also seen the very real power of music – people who have lost their ability to speak, singing along in a word-perfect rendition to a favourite song, much to the surprise of their family members. I have seen moods change from agitated to calm in response to a hymn or lullaby, and the joy that a well-loved song or aria can bring. I have received the most rapturous and un-self-conscious applause, and have been hugged and kissed like a family member by people who I don’t even share a common language with.
My community engagement work sits very much alongside my professional concert and opera work. I am still ambitious, busy, and dedicated to my career pursuits, and I am just as serious as ever about my ongoing artistic development. But community work has changed me. It has taught me to be a better performer – more connected, more communicative, less self-critical. And all I had to do, was to open my world to a group of people in my community who may not have necessarily felt included previously. Together we have created spaces where we can all be ourselves and share in a mutual love of good music. Amazing to think that it all started from singing to one lady in her living room for the Festival in a Box Project. I am so grateful for that privilege and I strongly encourage all musicians and creatives to open up their artistic practice to include regular community engagement and outreach work.
Suggested starting points:
- contact your local community centre to offer your services
- contact AgeUK to see if they have anyone who would benefit from a one-on-one artist visit
- contact Bloomsbury Festival in a Box to see if there are opportunities to get involved
- if you want to start your own project/scheme, look at local grants in your area that could fund a concert or two, a drawing class, a writing group etc
- bring a person you know who is living with dementia to a Songhaven concert, or volunteer as a concert steward