Claudine Hillier (not her real name) is a blind elderly woman
with advanced dementia. She sits in her wheelchair speaking in a
fragmented language often reverting to her native French patois
while another woman sits with her. They are alone in the room. The
younger woman starts to sing; gradually Claudine becomes aware of
her and they begin to communicate.
This isn’t a conventional conversation, but a musical one.
“The music took her to another place where she could
communicate,” says Harriet Powell, the younger woman in the
room and a music therapist.
Powell runs music therapy sessions for two days a week at Median
Road residential and day centre for older people, run by Hackney
Social Services. She works with people aged 60 and over, of which
many may suffer from dementia or have a deterioration of sight or
hearing, have suffered from a stroke or have Parkinson’s disease.
Six people meet up every week for open group sessions and
individual sessions. All these are made up of people who live at
the centre and those who visit daily.
“The music therapy allows people to be self-reflective and
provides a safe and supportive place to deal with the emotional
problems that go with some of their losses, such as frustration and
depression,” says Powell. She is keen to stress that music
therapy isn’t teaching. “What I’m doing is meeting them with
what they can do,” she says. “It’s about allowing them
to bring their musical experiences and innate musicality to a
session.” She describes this musicality as something that is
in all of us, not just those who have learnt to play an
Powell further explains how music therapy is particularly useful
to dementia sufferers as musicality often remains in tact when
other functions, such as the ability to communicate verbally,
deteriorate. “It allows them a way of communicating with
others and encourages interaction and motivation,” she
Sessions follow many different patterns. They can begin with
something structured such as someone singing a song they know or
the group could all choose instruments and improvise. Powell says
the role of the therapist is to reflect what the clients are
improvising musically helping them to feel heard, giving the
session a structure and holding it together. In the sessions the
group are also encouraged to listen to one another and to be aware
of the people around them.
Powell has been a music therapist for the Nordoff-Robbins music
therapy centre for three years and has run the project at the
centre ever since she first qualified. It was actually through her
previous job as a community musician for the Spare Tyre Theatre
Company that she first came into contact with the centre, having
directed the music for a theatre production based on the lives of
the residents and performed by them.
Powell records most music therapy sessions either in audio or
video. This means she can listen to the musical responses made by
her clients or to watch developments in the therapy such as
improved physical co-ordination. Sometimes improvement can be seen
over the course of just one session, as with Claudine, it allowing
her and others with dementia to go from being quite anxious and
restless to relaxed and focused. “It takes them to another
experience which is positive,” Powell says.
Another of Powell’s clients was a man who had become very
depressed after losing his home and his wife. He also has a heart
condition, memory loss and some confusion. He said that he used to
play the accordion and harmonica in pubs when he was younger and,
since working with Powell, has gradually started to play the
After regaining confidence in his skill he occasionally joined
the group. He also agreed to take part in a performance being put
on for families and centre staff. As well as the music giving him a
way to relate to other people, showing others his skills has
enabled them to see him more as the man he really is.
Although many of Powell’s clients don’t know her name, she is
sure they associate her with the positive experience of the music.
One aspect of the older people’s enjoyment of the therapy comes in
the summer, when Powell sometimes spontaneously conducts sessions
in the grounds of the centre and residents come and join in, drawn
simply by the pull of the music.
Like Powell’s work, Coventry Youth Offending Services (YOS) also
used music as a way of enabling people to communicate in their
“Voices of the Street Speak” project, but in a very
For four weeks in the summer holidays last year 10 young
offenders from Coventry aged 12-16 worked with C.O.V Gaudbodyz, a
local rap band, with the aim of recording a CD. At first many just
saw it as a necessary to fulfil the requirements of their court
orders but as operational manager of Coventry YOS Angie Parkes
explains it soon became much more: “At first they were all
just slouching in their chairs,” she says, “but by the
end we couldn’t get them out of the room.”
The workshop wanted to get the young people to explain what
being a criminal in Coventry is like and look at what would make a
difference to their behaviour. They were asked questions such as do
curfews work or are intensive surveillance orders more effective?
They were then encouraged to use the answers in their song.
“The project aimed to give young people a chance to have
their say about what it’s like being a young offender in an inner
city area,” says Parkes. She adds that it also tried to make
them look at consequences of their crimes on the victims
“To be honest it was a bit of gamble,” continues
Parkes. “We said tell us what you need to improve your
situation and what you want to say to influence politicians. We
didn’t know what the lyrics would be like.”
Parkes explains that one of the most valuable things to come out
of the project was that the young people convicted of lesser
offences heard from those further down the line that a life of
crime is not all it’s cracked up to be. “They learnt it’s not
worth it and it’s not glamorous. They also learnt that this is how
it affects your mum and this is how your neighbours will treat
you,” she says.
The project taught the young people the practical aspects of
sound recording and they also worked with a graffiti artist to
design the CD sleeve. Once completed each young person who took
part was awarded a copy of the CD and, as Parkes explains, for some
of them this was the first time they had ever had any recognition
In all Coventry YOS schemes they try to provide some form of
progression and one boy who took place in the Voices programme is
now a volunteer on another programme. YOS also try to provide
projects, such as Voices, that young offenders will actually want
to take part in, including a previous DJ-ing workshop.
The Coventry YOS are planning to release a support pack to
accompany the CD when it is released at the end of March. The pack
will contain guidance notes, worksheets and a card game for
professionals to use with young people to discuss issues around
offending. “The Voices of the Street Speak CD was such a
success, that we really wanted the opportunity to use it more
effectively with as many young people as possible,” says
When you hear the name The Orange Elephants, a rock band may not
be the first thing that springs to mind but if you’re into music
and live in Norwich, chances are you will have heard of them.
Managing to get funding to record a CD is impressive for any
band, but this becomes even more so when you learn that four of
five its members suffer from severe mental health problems. The
money, from MARSH Insurance, is the latest boost to a band that has
come a long way since its formation in 2001.
The Orange Elephants began life as a part of the “Music for
Health” project in Norwich, which offered music workshops to
people with enduring mental health problems. This was funded by the
East Norwich Regeneration Project and organised by local social
housing support organisation Julian Housing.
Although the project is long over, the band is still going
strong and has done two gigs since their formation: one at the
Norwich arts centre in April, and the second at the Ferryboat, a
pub in the town.
Annie Brooks, the original music facilitator for the project who
still works with the band, explains that the project wanted to
develop a group that did not have the “mental health”
label but that could be creative and responsive to developing the
talents of some of its clients. Originally the group was only
provided with funding for 15 weeks, to pay for venue and instrument
hire and Annie’s position, but this was extended after its success.
Brooks explains how her non mental-health background, having
previously worked in a range of musical fields, was a benefit.
“It was an advantage as I had no idea of the severity of the
clients’ mental health,” she says.
The band members were already musicians when Brooks met them. She
pushed for organisation and the development of basic skills such as
making decisions, communicating with each other and working as a
group, activities that regular practice sessions help to develop.
Band members now meet weekly to practice and include Zog (Roger
Bentley) on vocals and lead guitar, songwriter Daniel Burton on
guitar, Richard Jones on drums, Clifford Willet on Keyboard and
Adrian Dicks, who is a support worker for Julian Housing, on bass
guitar. “It’s been an amazing project,” says Brooks,
who also sometimes sings with the band. “You would expect
them to miss the occasional workshop but even when their support
worker can’t make it they still attend, with one even getting
a taxi.” She says that as well as involvement in the band
improving the lives of all the members, it has also helped one to
reduce their medication.
The “Health for Music” project was nominated in the
mental health category of the Community Care awards in 2001 and
some members of the band attended the event. “We had lovely
lamb for dinner,” recalls Zog, who as a fan of Ozzy Osbourne,
Iron Maiden and Pink Floyd would like the Orange Elephants’ music
to be “harder”.
Like Brooks he believes the band has had a positive experience
on all of its members. “We’ve all got schizophrenia and I
think we’ve done pretty well really,” he says. “I just
try to live a normal life and the band really helps with
this.” He adds that he thinks the band could go a lot further
and would love to make a living out of it. ”I even do gigs in
my sleep,” he says.
The Orange Elephants
Music facilitator Annie Brooks is on: 01603 478162
The Coventry Youth Offending Services
Room 414 4th Floor
Tel: 024 76 834293
Operational Manager: Angie Parks