Blog of Julian West

Accompanying each other through the lockdown

Julian West - Posted on 18.06.2020

Written by Open Academy Fellow Francesca Orlando

Music for Thought is a creative music-making project organised in collaboration with Resonate Arts, Wigmore Learning and the Royal Academy of Music aimed primarily for people living with dementia who are living in their own homes and are often more at risk of social isolation. Professional musicians, Issy Adams and Timothy Keasley were leading the 2020 project, assisted by three OA fellows: Sally Palmer, Thomas Highnam and myself, Francesca Orlando. This year’s central theme was “The Moon”. Within the sessions we had fun making music with the participants in all kinds of ways including improvisation, exploration of instruments, hearing performances of existing repertoire, lyric writing and singing!

I first came across Resonate Arts in their Music for the Moment concert series, where I was invited to give a recital. It was an incredibly moving, liberating and unique experience for me as I really felt embraced by an audience who was there simply to enjoy what wonderful emotions music and the communal experience of hearing it together has to offer. I felt completely at ease with with no fears of criticisms or judgements holding me back. This has been one of the most profound and unforgettable performance experience I have ever had.

A couple of months afterwards I started working on the Music for thought project at Wigmore Hall.  Being my first time on this project I was deeply struck by the bonds that were created between all of us, through the incredible means of making music together in a warm, relaxed and friendly environment. This mutual exchange of ideas and creativity acted as a catalyst to spark meaningful relationships and enriching moments within these short afternoon sessions. Unfortunately, four sessions in, coronavirus emerged and lockdown happened in the country. There came the immediate challenge of: how can we continue such invaluable community work where the very participants of the project would most likely be the first to be isolated from the community? How could we continue the bonds formed and the creative process of music-making together to not only enrich their lives but to sustain them in such pressing times as these?

We agreed that the most effective way to keep in contact with our participants and continue the project would be to pair each musician with one participant. The plan was to arrange fortnightly Zoom calls as a means to share and make music together.

My partnered friend, Lucy* is an elderly lady who I first met in the concert I did at the start of the year. I found out she was also a trained musician, who had studied the clarinet professionally. She never went into music as a career afterwards and therefore defined herself as a ‘failed musician’. I then found her again attending the Music for Thought projects. With the idea of ‘failed musician’ in mind she didn’t feel comfortable with ‘improvising’ in the sessions however took great delight in simply being in the room, absorbing the music being made around her and enjoying chatting to the professional musicians. She revealed that she particularly loves Bach’s music, had learnt all the 48 preludes and fugues and owns a harpsichord, which she occasionally plays!

With this in mind in our first Zoom session I played Bach’s Partita No. 1. To my great surprise I realised that she had prepared her music so she could follow the score while I played. I was delighted to play to such a passionate lady and we spent much of the phone call speaking about artists, different interpretations, her love for live concerts and how much she missed this in this time of lockdown. I decided to send her a link to some of my own live concert video recordings on YouTube that she could listen to in her spare time. To my amusement, the first thing she told me in our next Zoom meeting was that she had listened to them and that in the middle of one piece, someone coughed very loudly, which was extremely irritating and reproduced the environment of the live concert hall perfectly, as if she were in the room!

One of the limitations but also assets of these phone calls has been the use of technology. I am so impressed at how quick Lucy has been to learn new skills and gain independence in this project. Julie, a member of Resonate Arts has been amazing in teaching Lucy how to use applications on her smartphone such as Zoom, WhatsApp and YouTube prior to our phone calls. I found it was really helpful to use the same device as Lucy when connecting with her over Zoom so that I had the same display layout to indicate what to press when she had some difficulties (especially in connecting the audio and making my face the main screen image on her phone). One way we counteracted the sound limitation and latency on the screen when listening to my live performance was to mute the Zoom call and call Lucy using the landline. This way she was able to see the visual image via Zoom while listening to me over her landline which was put on speakerphone.

Another difficulty to overcome was the frustration that built up in Lucy when our Wi-Fi connection was poor, this would often effect her mood and willingness to engage as she would blame herself for this problem. It was beautiful however to see how her peace, serenity and confidence were restored the minute I explained that this was not the case. That most of the times it was my wi-fi that wasn’t working and that sometimes with technology we have limited control. The times we were able to connect quickly were instantly received with a great big smile on Lucy’s face saying: “that didn’t take long to set up! Now let’s start with the music”

My third phone call was just prior to a recording session I had planned to do. It was incredibly helpful for me to perform to Lucy, and also to hear her own professional view and feedback. One thing I noticed was that her passion and broad knowledge of music necessitated a relationship such as this for her to be able to talk about her love for music with a professional musician in a friendly environment. She told me how harpsichords and organs were tuned, some of her favourite performers and the joy that live music brings to her. For her to be given a sense of responsibility in listening to me play and give a constructive comment/feedback on it added to this central theme of making music together, as well as serving to restore her confidence and increase her self-worth of what she can still contribute, despite her frailty, age and isolation.

The relationship we formed has been a mutual accompanying of each other through this lockdown using music as a hinge to open up a sincere dialogue and share a whole array of aspects present in our ‘lockdown’ lives. It has been beautiful to exchange our moods, happenings, bereavements and joys throughout these ‘short but sweet’ one to one phone calls. It really is wonderful how music can form both a medium and an end to this accompaniment; building social connections at a time of social distancing that might never have been formed. This personal one to one contact, although brief has been one of total attention, dedication and support to one another. Lucy to me has been a reminder and presence of an external audience member and friend to my music making, and I have been one of the few personal contacts Lucy has had with the outside world!

For me it has been a strong and powerful reminder of the important role classical, live music, has in our society. I shall leave this lockdown having gained deeper insights into the role technology has in aiding our profession, the joy sharing music with others brings and the acquisition of one new friend whose relationship knows no barriers.

* I have used an arbitrary name so as not to disclose personal information

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