100 Years of Jazz: Ragtime


Blog by Louise Balkwill

In our last blog, we looked at Congo Square and the origins of Jazz music. Now we visit the 1890’s, when Ragtime appeared in its earliest form.

Unlike the earlier music of Congo Square that was passed down aurally from generation to generation, Ragtime music gained popularity through being passed around as sheet music, and is thought to be the first written ‘pop’ music – Blues, in contrast, was thought by the higher classes to be a lower class rural music (although very important in the history of jazz – we will have a listen to some blues in the next blog.)

Named ‘Ragtime’ because of its ragged, syncopated rhythms, the music became very popular for dances and was written mainly by middle class African American musicians who had gained influence from minstrelsy and classical music, as well as the improvised and traditional music of Congo Square. The music was accompanied by a dance called the ‘Cakewalk’ – this made way for endless variations that the kids of the time loved to get their feet into. Ragtime music was also a very popular choice to accompany silent films in its later years. You might well have heard of “The Entertainer” (or even played it for one of your grade exams); this is a Ragtime piece written by Scott Joplin, the celebrated “King of Ragtime” in 1902, 115 years ago!

Ragtime started off as a music witten only for solo piano, but in the early 1900’s, orchestral and ensemble arrangements became popular. The violin then became the main leading instrument in these ragtime ensembles with this popular line-up:

  • Melody: First Violin (or Cornet with second Cornet harmonies)
  • Beats 2 and 4: Second Violin (prior to the banjo)
  • Beats 1 and 3: Bass Viol
  • *Obbligato: Piccolo or Clarinet
  • Bassline: Trombone
  • Percussion: Strict time drumming

*Obbligato, (Italian: “obligatory”), in music, essential but subordinate instrumental part. For example, in an 18th-century aria with trumpet obbligato, the trumpet part, although serving as accompaniment to the voice, may be as brilliant in its writing as that of the voice itself.

Fancy having a go at learning some Ragtime Piano?

Check out this video with on-screen sheet music of the first known rag, written by the first published African American composer, Tom Turpin!

(If you liked that, check out YouTube user RagtimeDorianHenry’s other ragtime videos!)

In the next blog, we’ll be looking at early blues and how it has played a massive part in the evolution of the jazz tradition!

100 Years of Jazz: Part 1 – Congo Square

Blog by Louise Balkwill

2017 is a very special year for music – it marks 100 years since the release of the first ever jazz recording, “Livery Stable Blues” by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band! Since then, popular music has foxtrotted, swung, bopped, rocked and rolled its way into the 21st century, but the rich culture of improvised music from New Orleans is still rife today all over the world.


Congo Square, the Birthplace of Jazz

Before we look at the journey that jazz music has taken over the past 100 years, we must ask how it came to be in the first place.

Rewind 100 years further to the year of 1817; 198 years after the first Africans were sold into slavery in America. The mayor of New Orleans city council established “Congo Square” (originally known as Beauregard Square and Congo Plains) as an official site for slave music and dance by restricting any kind of gathering of enslaved Africans anywhere else in the city.

Every Sunday, they would gather in Congo Square and sell goods to raise money to buy their freedom. In the glimpse of free time that this weekly ‘day off’ provided, they would also gather together to sing, dance and create music. Original instruments used included long, narrow African drums that had previously been banned in America, triangles, jawbones and early ancestors of the banjo.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s drawing of a bamboula, made at Congo Square on February 16, 1819. (© Maryland Historical Society)

Dances such as “Flat-Footed-Shuffle” and the ”Bamboula” were performed as these rhythms were played. As time went on, the dances and music evolved with new influences and ideas.

Visitors from all over New Orleans began to gather to spectate and dance along to what they then coined “Black music”, and this culture began to spread across America.

African slaves dancing the Bamboula; Illustration by Edward Windsor Kimble at The Historic New Orleans Collection

The square became a mixing pot for a rich diversity of traditional African rhythms passed down through many generations, as well as European music that English-speaking Africans were familiar with.

In 1865, after almost 250 years of slavery in America, the cruel trade was abolished, but the musical traditions that had evolved over the past few decades stuck.


In the next post, we’ll be looking at how African American music evolved into the new hip trend of the late 19th century – Ragtime!

The Becky Dell Music Academy – A London Living Wage Organisation

We are delighted to have been awarded the London Living Wage Employer mark by the Living Wage Foundation, a foundation supporting the fair pay of employees across the country.

Although we have only recently received accreditation, we have always strived to provide fair wages for our admin staff and tutors are paid above the Musicians’ Union recommended rate, which makes for a happy team!

Congratulations also to Mycenae House, our biannual concert venue, for being awarded the same mark.

We thought you’d be happy to know that you are supporting the fair pay of employees by choosing to have music lessons with us – a big thank you from the whole team!

The Becky Dell Music Academy – A London Living Wage Organisation

Love of Life and the Living World

Love of Life and the Living World

By Indigo Star

Many of you will have heard of the incredible singer, songwriter, producer, DJ and actress Bjork. With around 4 Million records sold worldwide as of 2015, is it any wonder she is considered by many to be ” the most important and forward looking musician of her generation” and “one of the greatest women in music”?

Famed for her innovative approach to vocals and composition, her expansive career, which spans 4 decades has taken her audience on an immersive journey through a myriad of influences, genres and styles.

But here is where it gets really interesting.

Not only has her music reached the masses but her forward thinking approach has lead her to pioneer a new technological app along with an unchartered teaching approach that could change the way we engage and create using colour and sound as a combined tool…This app is called Biophilia – but more on that a little later.

Collaborating frequently with multidisciplinary artists and exploring the way music is visually represented Bjork continues to develop an ever-expanding platform for us to broaden our perceptions of music and inspire our imaginations.

 Her collaborations have extended to include scientists, environmentalists, artists, academics and technologists and it was these collaborations that culminated in the release of her extraordinary 2011 album “Biophilia” in which Bjork brings the multi sensory experience and expression of music to a whole new level.

This official video of one of the album tracks is breathtaking in it’s concept and delivery. In it Bjork creates an audiovisual landscape of our living nature…

click here

And with that let me bring you back to the app this wonderful artist has created…
Bjork teamed up with Producer and app designer Scott Snibbe to create and launch the innovative Biophilia App.

In the creators’ own words…

“Björk has collaborated with artists, designers, scientists, instrument makers, writers and software developers to create an extraordinary multimedia exploration of the universe and its physical forces, processes and structures – of which music is a part. Each in-app experience is inspired by and explores the relationships between musical structures and natural phenomena, from the atomic to the cosmic. You can use Biophilia to make and learn about music, to find out about natural phenomena, or to just enjoy Björk’s music.”

Using similar ideas to those explored within the app, the live performances of tracks from her Biophilia album incorporate giant science based installations, bringing science in its magnitude directly into the concert experience.

Check out this performance…
click here

Now, not only did she create the remarkable app but Bjork simultaneously initiated a groundbreaking education project across Iceland. In collaboration with The Ministry of Education, Science and Culture and The Nordic Council of Ministers she set up a collaborative network of experts in music, science, technology and the arts to promote innovation in schools and encourage interesting music and its creation.

Bjork joined forces with the City of Reykjavik and the University of Iceland to launch the Biophilia Education Project which would roll out in selected schools over the course of 3 years.

In layman terms, it’s focus is to draw people away from their desks and invite them to delve into the depths of their imagination. 

With a fundamental ethos of Listen, Learn, Create this exceptional project, by encouraging simultaneous learning between multiple disciplines, encourages diversity and stimulates experimentation and growth in a more tangible way than many traditional teaching methods . They believe that giving students a new model of open-mindedness and uninhibited exploration creates potential for new discoveries that might otherwise have been missed.

What a woman!

Click the link below to see a guided tour of the app by Designer and executive Producer Scott Snibbe as he gives an introduction to utilising this amazing creative resource :
click here

Perhaps you could put this incredible tool to good use and start your own personal journey into sound science and the unlimited creative multimedia universe or perhaps trial this transformative education tool in a project or classroom of your own.

For more information, videos, downloadable teaching PDF’s and more visit the website:


Biophilia Education


Big Ben’s Bells are Taking a Little Break…

This blog is all about Bells. Big beautiful bonging bells! Both the Big Ben bell and the place it was created, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in East London.

Any keen listener of BBC Radio 4 will probably know of the impending bong deficit. This is because the Clock Tower at Westminster (the home of Big Ben and the other bells) is having a major three year refurbishment plan.

Of course, when you rely on the Bongs of Big Ben to start your live Radio show or TV programme, what do you do instead?

There was the story of the young girl who had very kindly offered to step in and do the bongs, and whilst we wait for the Bells to stop chiming (they are unsure when exactly within the three year restoration programme the bells will stop exactly, but they estimate the bongs will be out of action for a few months), here are some suggestions. This is a three minute audio clip on the subject from BBC Radio 4.

Photo from the BBC Archive.

Here are some facts about Big Ben, taken from www.bigbenfacts.co.uk

Who named Big Ben?

Londoners did. SUPPOSEDLY, the bell was going to be named Victoria after Queen Victoria, but Londoners started calling the bell “Big Ben” and the name stuck. (Giving nicknames is still a London custom – just think about “the Gherkin”!)

Where and when was Big Ben made?

Big Ben was cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry, in East London, on 10th April 1858. It took him two weeks to cool, and once he was ready, they transported him to Westminster on a horse drawn carriage. Londoners lined the route and cheered as the bell went past.

How much does Big Ben weigh?

He weighs about 13 and a half tons, about the same as a small elephant.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry is a great company with centuries of tradition, sadly struggling to survive in a modern world.

As a result of this, the company is closing May 2017. The site is being sold for flats (sigh) but they are still hopeful that the business might survive. So if you know anyone that might want a bell making business, tell them to get in touch with the current owners. I’ve been to visit Kathryn and Alan Hughes at the Bell Foundry and they are great people. I hope they find suitable buyers and keep one of the oldest businesses (it’s been going for 446 years) in the UK going…

Pope’s Percussive Preferences…a guide to your first drum kit.

By Harry Pope, BDMA Drum Tutor.

Hello Hello!
I’m Harry and I’m Becky’s resident maker of noise. Or drummer. Take your pick. This short blog post will be about selecting a drum kit, geared mainly towards the beginner side of things.

Okay, so when looking for a beginner kit for a young child (or a big kid like me) there are a few things to look for.

Firstly, size is a big factor. The drum kit is a physical instrument and despite what is marketed as “beginner” kits, there’s no need for a kid under ten to have a big 22″ rock sized bass drum, and in fact one of my other pupils who is seven runs into a fair amount of difficulty because of that exact problem. I have NO idea why schools keep buying these oversized behemoths of drum kits.
So I’d advise either a bass drum between the sizes of 16″ and 20″. I still use an 18″ on some of my gigs, so don’t worry about growing out of it anytime soon. Trust me, if they start a band and you end up ferrying them to gigs like my dad did then you’ll thank me.

THIS is what I had as my intermediate kit. MISTAKE, no matter what the guy in the drum shop tells you!
Also note the 90’s kid hair. Groovy.
So: smaller kit please.
Also, it’ll take up less space, and it’ll be a bit quieter which is always good for the rest of the family!
There are a few things that you would want to check out for a first kit. The “all in one” starter kits I really wouldn’t recommend, because their main selling point is including everything you need in one package, despite the fact that none of them are really any good. They might look alright in the stock photos, but when you get them out of the box they might end up looking like this…

You have been warned.




All the larger brands of drums have low – mid range kits which are much, much better quality. Also, I really would not rule out second hand kits, as a well kept mid-professional level kit would be ten times better than a new kit at the same price.

You can essentially break the kit down into four parts: the shells, the hardware, the cymbals and the heads.

The shells themselves are pretty straightforward: as long as they’re round and are sanded down properly you’ll be fine. Seems simple, but a lot of the beginner kits can end up a weird oval shape, and then you’re in trouble. If you’re worried, then you can take the heads off and rest them on a tabletop. If they wobble then they’re out of round and that’s a no-no. Avoid like the proverbial plague. Or the actual plague. Whichever is worse.

The hardware (cymbal stands, snare stand, screws to keep the heads on etc) is an important one. With a slightly more expensive kit than the Taiwan/Chinese “beginner” kits, chances are all the hardware is made in the same factory, and won’t be too far off the professional level standard kits, and therefore will survive the energetic onslaught of excitable children for years. I still have some of the hardware from my first kit years ago and it still works fine. I really recommend Yamaha hardware, as it’s made in their motorcycle factory, which for obvious reasons has to have amazing quality control. Even their lightweight hardware can withstand a crazy loud rock drummer laying into their kit with all the subtlety of a small bison. But anyway, enough about my teenage years.

The cymbals are probably the trickiest. What I would say is buy some reasonably cheap ones, e.g. The Solar range by Sabian, or the Zbt range from Zildjian. They’re much less likely to break, and will do for a good few years or even longer. The cymbals included in a cheap beginner set are just cheap brass cutouts (yeah, really), and I’ve seen them snap or turn inside out when hit – they sound awful and break pretty soon. The other option is to buy some better level second-hand cymbals, made in Istanbul. They have a lower price tag than the American ones and always just as good, even better. The holy grail of ride cymbals, the 50’s K Zildjian was made in Turkey, and they sound like a good back massage feels. Mmmmm.

The stock heads you get on a lower level kit are never particularly good, generally cheap plastic. A £300 kit with good heads will sound better than my £3k kit with rubbish heads.

ANYWAY. Basically what I’m trying to say, is that if you spend a little more now, and let me give you a hand with it, then it’ll save you money in a year or two if he or she loves it and keeps it up, and it’ll also hold it’s value a lot better if you ever want to resell it.



Cable and Amps and Mics – oh my!

Amplification of your instrument and/or voice (By Ronald)

Some instruments can’t be heard without an amplifier. An electric guitar, an electric bass guitar, a digital piano or a keyboard: you can’t hear them (very well) unless you plug them in. Acoustic instruments can be played without amplification. Of course they can, that’s why they are called acoustic.Sometimes, however, it won’t be loud enough for the occasion…

Luckily they can be amplified in a few different ways. The easiest and best known solution is a microphone, but in case of an acoustic guitar or other string instrument a pickup can be easier/better. If you are interested in how pickups work and which varieties there are, see here. If you have specific questions about how to amplify your instrument with a pick up, ask your (guitar, cello, violin, double bass) tutor or email me.

In this blog I’ll focus on microphones (mics). Mics come in many shapes and sizes and have differences in sound and compatability. One uses different mics for a drum kit than for a flute or a voice. I don’t expect many of you to want to amplify your drum kit yet, so once you’ve booked your first stadium gig, you can ask Harry (or me on same email as above) about what to use.

Like an electrical guitarist owns an amplifier to make him/herself heard, it is sometimes useful to be able to amplify your voice while singing. At home your voice is easily loud enough. At a venue like the Mycenae House your vocal won’t be strong enough to match up with the grand piano (unless you’re a trained opera singer). Those of you who have sung through a mic there may have found out that it sounds quite different and that singing through a mic comes with a certain technique. Therefore it is very useful to be taught how to hold it and use it. It’s not a bad idea to own your own mic to practice and get used to how it sounds. If you ever get a gig other than the BDMA concerts, it might come in handy that you can bring your own gear. The most used vocal mics for live situations are the Shure SM58 and the Sennheiser e835. There are definitely more options, but with one of these you can be sure of a good sound.

A mic is made to pick up sound, but doesn’t make your voice any louder yet. You’ll need a speaker to let the sound come out. Unfortunately you can’t plug your mic straight into the speaker, because the signal is way too weak (in fact it’s even weaker than a guitar signal, that’s why plugging it into a guitar amp can’t make it really loud either). That is where the amplifier comes in. You can find the amp and speaker nicely built into one box, called a “combo”,  “powered speaker” or “active speaker”. What we call a “vocal amp” is in fact such a combo. You can find a suitable solution for any budget between £100 and £1000. Top notch of portable combos is AER. The sound is great, the box is small and light. They cost around a grand, that is. Luckily there is a range of more affordable combos. The SubZero and the Behringer B205D are good and not too expensive options. If you’ve got the time, I advise you to go to a shop like Eric Lindsey in Catford or one of the many shops in Denmark Street. Here you can hear and compare a few different models. Alternatively you can find many good second hand vocal amps on sites like Ebay and Gumtree.

The important thing is that the input is a mic input. XLR inputs are always meant (or at least compatible) for mics. Jack inputs can be compatible for mics, but you need to check that. If it’s not, you’ll still hear something, but the amplification will be limited. Feel free to email me to ask if a certain amp is suitable for you. Once you’ve chosen and purchased a mic and a vocal amp, you’ll need a lead to connect them.  The output of a mic is always XLR (except for mics from before 1960). If the mic input on your amp is XLR too, you’ll need a standard mic lead. If your amp has a jack mic input, you need a XLR to Jack lead.


Simple as that!

Disclaimer: I used links from different music shops. You can find all products on many more websites and you can (probably) buy everything together on each of them. Beware of the complete vocal performance packs though, ’cause sometimes they come with quite a mediocre mic. I don’t intend to direct people to a certain shop, so feel free to have a browse. When in doubt, don’t hesitate to contact me or your tutor.


Soulful Sonic Sound

By Indigo Star, April 2016

Sing Sing Sing Soulful Sonic Sound

Singing positively effects neurology, physiology, psychology and sociology.

Sing Sing Sing 1

The power of song

As a young girl the early years of schooling were full of joy and are easy to recall as each week began and ended with a whole school assembly led by the Head Teacher who would do their best to positively inspire the days ahead, typically followed by a collective chorus of songs or hymns sung by all. We were always accompanied by the tinkling ivories of our talented music teacher who regularly charmed a tune from the classic upright relic that had been hauled from pillar to post within the school and hence seen better days.

The best part of the day was this time when we sang together as one. The sensation of opening lungs and projecting song bird like sounds in unison with my comrades and classmates was a delight. Certain songs would summon variable emotions and sensations though little did I know or understand at such a young age why this was so. Primary years passed and all too soon Secondary education descended in a cloud of demanding expectation and with it paled the opportunity to create music and explore a very natural phenomenon of harmonising with one another. Sadly with the turning tides of age and educational evolution, morning song was abandoned much to the decline of our collective happiness. I had taken for granted that singing was something we all had to do as par for the course and it was only upon omission of this activity that I became aware of what a gift had been compulsorily afforded to us in these early years. In the absence of these musical moments shared it became apparent that by not singing, we as a society were missing a trick for people to be healthier and happier as a whole. The importance of self expression upon the delicate fabric of our psychology, neurology and physiology should not be underestimated and there has been much exploration into understanding this essential existentialism. Articles such labs.psych.ucsb.edu delve into the cultural impact of expression and many have dissected this aspect of human nature in order to gain insight into how we contextualise our existence and the tendencies of our species in terms of relating to ones self, each other and our environment.


One of the vital forms in which expression can be experienced is through the voice. Singing in particular promotes so many health benefits it would be foolish to ignore such a wonderful tonic for life. This mode of communication not only energises us by exercising our lungs, improving our posture, circulation, confidence and self esteem. It also stimulates mental capacity, promotes positive sleep patterns, reduces stress, anger, depression, anxiety and pain through the release of endorphins whilst also boosting our immune system, toning our intercostal muscles and diaphragm, increasing uplifted feelings, enhancing mood and well-being. When singing is done in a group the added benefit of bringing people together to share the experience can create a greater sense of community and support, often lessening the devastating effects of isolation whilst leading to greater opportunities for laughter, connectivity and friendship. Singing is a timeless enjoyment that has the potential to enrich lives and restoratively promote equilibrium regardless of gender, creed, age, ability or orientation.

Indigo 6

Because singing increases the oxygen in the blood, exercises major muscle groups and positively effects emotional well-being through the action of the endocrine system it is believed that singing can in fact prolong life expectancy and creatively enhance sociability of the population. Extensive research repeatedly shows how singing can dramatically improve our health. When people sing oxytocin is released which gives them a high similar to that experienced during pregnancy (hence the ‘glow’), lactation, sex and eating chocolate. Dr Kreutze of Frankfurt University Music department conducted controlled research to provide evidence that our immune system is improved by the increase of antibodies secreted when we sing. By sampling the saliva of people before and after singing which showed significant changes including the reduction of stress and lowering of blood pressure. It should be noted that these changes were not so evident in the control group that only listened to music therefore demonstrating that we have to actively participate in the act of singing to fully reap its physical benefits. According to the journal paper mp.ucptess.edu when samples were taken from a professional chorale during early rehearsals and a public performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, measures of immune system response indicate that levels of secretory immunoglobulin A increased significantly, as a proportion of whole protein, 150% during rehearsals and 240% during the performance. Cortisol concentrations (steroid hormone created in adrenal cortex released in response to stress) decreased significantly at an average of 30% during rehearsal and 37% during performance. The Royal College of Music’s centre for performance science produced mirrored results with singers at Cheltenham’s prestigious Music Festival in July and London’s Union Chapel in March 2015 evidencing the psycho-biological effects similarly showing a reduction of cortisol and cortisone in both singers and audience members.

Indigo 7

Therefore, it is surely obvious to conclude that if more people of all ages participated in singing opportunities the benefits would positively serve our society by enabling stronger community cohesion to be achieved, personal well-being of individuals increased and a lot more fun and laughter enjoyed by all. The absence of singing assemblies in many of our schools is a shame and categorically detrimental to our social success, therefore reintroduction of this transformative musical activity where possible though out school life, not just at Primary school level but through all stages of education and growth would encourage our children to develop into healthy, happy adults. To ensure inclusivity works such as the secular songs for schools created by Howard Goodall address the diversity of our current cosmopolitan culture. Thereafter, local choirs and singing groups could cater for all ages, enhancing greater community which transpires to become communication in unity if you read between the lines.

Music transcends difference, breaks down barriers, alleviates suffering and separation whilst giving all empowering access to soulful sonic sound expression. A better world is possible through song as people become less concerned with singing well and more aware of wellness through singing.

Indigo 8

Our Day In The Jungle Camp in Calais

By Becky

When I was singing a carol at Midnight Mass this year, a line from one of the carols struck me. I can’t remember which particular line it was, something about peace and goodwill towards our fellow man. Whenever I think of the wars and atrocities going on in the world, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of goodwill towards our fellow man going on. I decided at that moment that I would do what I could. Sadly, I can not change international borders or stop war, but I can change things around me, we all can.

I set up a community fundraiser to go over to The Jungle Camp in Calais and the response was magnificent. We raised £1,000 and took over 30 bags of clothes, blankets, toys and books with us. The first part of this blog is to say THANK YOU to everyone that contributed. Parts of the UK press can be very negative about refugees and we were heartened by how positive and large the response from our community was. There is a lot of love out there which is wonderful to see and feel!

Yesterday we went to Calais. We did it as a day trip from Dover, which is perfectly do-able for anyone considering it. We took pens, paper and supplies for the school in the camp and dozens and dozens of musical instruments to give away, mostly plastic instruments such as recorders, harmonicas and percussion instruments.  We gave a keyboard to the school and took lots of music with us. We bought a cajon and left it with a great community group in the camp. The cajon was enthusiastically played by some Afghan men jamming with us – they could play a rhythm or two!

The recipients of these instruments were both children and adults, all joyously received and enthusiastically played. We played music together, and danced, and sang. We had some beautiful moments of connectedness and heard stories that made us want to weep, stories of Fathers rescuing their children from the Taliban. I think if your child went to school and was attacked by the Taliban, had their arms cut open to stop them writing because they didn’t believe in education, and then they tried to abduct them into their army, to fight for a war you didn’t believe in, you would probably want to leave your country too.

Despite everything they’ve been through, the people we met yesterday were lovely, they were genuine, warm hearted, generous, open. We always felt safe. We had heard terrible stories of the French Police, but in our experience they were polite.

We struggled on the way back to surmise our day. What we do we reply when people asked “How was your day in Calais?”. To say, “It was great” appears too flippant, yet there were moment of greatness. Was it sad? Eye-opening? Humbling? Of course it was, it was always going to be. Does it make you re-evaluate your privileges? Yes, without a doubt. Does it make you want to do more? Yes.

We will be going back.

I made a video about our day. It doesn’t have any images of the refugees in it, they are not to be filmed like animals in the zoo and we are not there as tourists, but I wanted to document my day and my feelings. Just to add a disclaimer, these are my feelings alone. We went as a group and I suspect that most in the group feel the same way as I do, but it would be wrong for me to put words in their mouths. This is a sensitive issue with many complex strands that I do not try and pretend to have answers for. We just tried to spread a little love with music, and we achieved that. This is my account.


P.S. I believe in holding our leaders to account – David Cameron, please accept more refugees into the UK, we should be doing more. It is immoral to bomb countries then not look after innocent civilians fleeing war.

“Enjoy your Music Lesson…” Misunderstandings of Music Therapy with People with Dementia

“Enjoy your Music Lesson…” Misunderstandings of Music Therapy with People with Dementia

By Polly Bowler, Music Therapist

Working as a music therapist in care homes I come across many different people; the older people I work with (clients/residents), their relatives and friends, the staff who care for them and run the homes where they live, my fellow health care professionals and the generous volunteers. With so many people involved it can be tricky to get across what I’m doing, or trying to do for the residents. In the complex jigsaw puzzle of the care system, music therapy is one of the lesser known allied healthcare professions that helps to make up the bigger picture of care. Raising awareness about what music therapy is and how it
can help can feel like having a song on repeat; gently correcting and redirecting the well- meant but often mistaken assumptions that people have.

So I wondered if I could help try to explain some of the common misunderstandings that I have encountered in my work with people with dementia.

1) “Music therapy will make you happy”

Let’s start here, as happiness is something that we all want to experience and enjoy. On my way to and from music therapy sessions with residents we are often stopped and greeted with, “have a good time”, “enjoy yourself” and “have fun”. In a setting where people are struggling with loss on multiple fronts – loss of identity, loss of occupation, loss of independence, loss of their home and possessions, as well as the losses felt by their relatives and friends – it can become vital for relatives and staff to be able to think of and see the residents being happy.

The focus of music therapy sessions however is not to make someone feel happy, but instead it is to try to establish how a person is feeling and to be there with them with those feelings, whatever they might be. This is not to say that happiness is not important. It is. But so are all the other emotions that we can experience. People with dementia still feel the full spectrum of emotions that they have always had. However, their ability to cope with or process them may have declined which could lead to frustration, anxiety or agitation. Music therapy can offer a means of non-verbal self-expression, connecting again through music, whether the resident is feeling happy or sad, wistful or excited, tired or animated.

By using a mixture of improvisation and familiar music the communication of feelings and emotions can be given an alternative language through which to be expressed.

2) “How did they do?”

We all want to feel a sense of achievement in life. In music therapy, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way for clients to be. They cannot get it ‘wrong’ as sessions are person-centred and the therapist follows and supports them in whatever mood or state they are in. So I suppose the answer to this will always be that they did it perfectly.

I sometimes wonder if this also ties into a mistaken belief that I am there to teach the residents. Perhaps this is because music lessons are a more familiar concept than music therapy sessions so people think that’s what I do in sessions with residents. When I’m not being a music therapist, I am an instrumental music teacher. I have taught cello, sax and piano for years. However the two professions are worlds apart.

3) “You wouldn’t want to see them!”

”they’re too challenging” or “today’s not a good day…” Staff can sometimes seem to be trying to protect me from the challenging behaviours that residents can exhibit as a result of their confusion brought on by their dementia. Often, these are the very behaviours that music therapists are trained and employed to try to help the resident and home with.

Challenging behaviours can be anything from wandering or perambulating, to physical aggression and the whole spectrum in between. Imagine having a surge of emotion but not being able to understand what it is yourself, and also not being able to communicate it to anyone else. By the therapist’s intense observations of body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and any verbal interaction offered they can try to gauge how someone is feeling and to then meet them with music to support and validate those feelings. This can lead to the resident feeling responded to and understood which in turn can lead to their mood changing. But if it doesn’t change that is ok too, and we can remain in their current emotional state together rather than them being there alone and unsupported.

4) “Why don’t you see so-and-so instead?”

What is the saying about best laid plans? Seeing people for sessions in the place that they live in means that there can be a vast number of things that can prevent you from being able to have a session when you had hoped. The resident might not be up yet, or they might be doing something else or demonstrating their right to choose by not coming (it is important to respect people’s autonomy). Consequently, the usual boundaries of time and place associated with therapy may need to become flexible in order to facilitate sessions.

I work with individuals who have been referred to individual music therapy for weekly sessions. The referral process at my workplace (it will be different in other establishments) enables me to learn about the resident’s personal history, their medical diagnosis, the medication/s that they are prescribed and the potential side effects that they could cause, possible risks both to them or to me, the reason that the referral has been made and so on. After referral, six assessment sessions are offered. This process enables a more thorough understanding of the resident as well as the chance to establish therapeutic aims for the course of sessions. Seeing people for one-off sessions can be done, but it is a very different process without this background knowledge. That isn’t to say it is better or worse, just different. It is my priority to try to see the residents who have been referred to me and are ‘in therapy’.

5) “Are you doing music entertainment later?”

I run an open group therapy session each day. The term ‘open group’ means that anyone can come or go as they please. I’ve mentioned the confusion that people with dementia can experience. This, combined with the common hearing problems that older people can have and the difficulties with processing situations or events occurring around them, can make it problematic to run large open groups in the traditional improvisation-based manner. The structure and familiarity offered by pre-composed, well-known songs and tunes can provide residents with a feeling of relaxedness and comfort. This in turn can provide a foundation for increasing positive social interactions and communication between the members of the group whilst tapping in to the resources that people still have.

Isolation is a common result of dementia. Depression can be a common secondary symptom too, which itself can lead to isolation, lethargy and apathy. Engaging residents with familiar music can promote opportunities for sociable encounters with others. And once people are engaging and interacting, it can be possible to encourage improvisation. This promotes spontaneity and creativity, which in turn can raise self-esteem and feelings of being skilled, helping to enrich and maintain their quality of life.

And finally…

There are many more misconceptions surrounding music therapy, but more importantly there is a growing understanding of our clinical work. As staff see their residents respond to both the individual and group sessions they themselves become more interested and supportive of sessions, enabling residents to attend and offering them gentle encouragement if they seem unsure. We are able to work as a multi-disciplinary team, feeding back important observations and suggestions to each other. As music therapy reaches and helps more clients and their families, people’s understanding of it will continue grow.

Dementia affects an ever growing number of people and it affects each of them differently. Music therapy offers a person centred, non-drug based intervention which can be relevant in the early stages of dementia all the way through to end of life care; for those at home in the community, in hospital or in care homes, regardless of the challenges and difficulties that the client might be experiencing. As a profession we strive to continue to learn and keep our knowledge up to date in order to best meet the individual needs of our clients. No two sessions are alike, just as no two clients are the same. Our training enables us to tailor sessions to the ever-changing needs of the individual. It is both a challenge and a privilege to carry out this work.

Polly has been playing music her whole life. Following her education at the Purcell School and Trinity College of Music, she trained and qualified as a music therapist at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and has worked with people with Dementia since early 2012. She plays cello in an invigorating and exciting folk collective, Tribe of Tinkers.

The British Association for Music Therapy is the professional body for music therapist and a source of information, support and involvement for the general public, and acts as a voice for those who could benefit from music therapy and those who provide music therapy. Find out more at BAMT www.bamt.org