Published
1 September 2019

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A bittersweet symphony

Andre and his family have been taking part in a songwriting project

“He likes all sorts – in fact, I’m not sure there’s a genre he doesn’t like!”

Tracy is talking about the music her husband, Andre listens to. Tracy, Andre and his daughter Gabrielle have been taking part in ‘The Family Song’, a song writing project developed by music therapist Ffion from St Christopher’s.

“We were asked quite early on after being referred to St Christopher’s whether we wanted music therapy. Andre played bass guitar and double bass in bands all over the world for 50 years, so we thought it would be a good fit.

Ffion came to our house every Tuesday for six weeks. She’d arrive with bags full of instruments and a brain full of ideas to get us talking about music, making music or just listening to it. It wasn’t a big ask, as I’m a professional musician and Gabrielle is a music researcher and singer, but Andre has high standards and there was no way he was going to take the step down from the bass guitar to a rain stick!

Encouraging Andre to play music was a real challenge but listening to it was another thing entirely. In 2012 he was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy (caused by Alzheimer’s) and a year later they refined the diagnosis to Lewy body dementia and Parkinson’s, which often involves hallucinations and changes in behaviour. Listening to music helped Andre to calm down, I could see him physically relax when we put on music that he recognised.”

Lewy body dementia, like other types of dementia, is a gradual deterioration of the brain. Lewy bodies are chunks of protein that develop inside nerve cells; impairing movement and alertness, contributing to Parkinson’s disease.

Gabrielle says, “What’s great is that the sessions give him variety in his day. With Ffion, we spent a lot of time listening to stuff that Dad enjoyed but also watching and listening to a lot of clips of Dad performing.

For me, listening to music and playing music with Dad is quite a bittersweet experience. When I was younger he taught me my first chords on the guitar and we would play music together a lot. For Dad, music is more than just music, it was his profession, something he did every day, so it feels weird to play in such different circumstances, but it’s really cathartic.”

He would have a good old cry at the music, but it was good emotion, it was happy and I think it helped him to come to terms with his situation.

In his heyday, Andre played in the Syd Lawrence Orchestra for 15 years and Tracy remembers his spontaneity and precision as a musician, “He never missed a beat, and he still doesn’t. He’ll correct us even now. Though he is often quiet, whistling or singing always gets a response from him, particularly when you’re not in time.”

Over six sessions Tracy, Gabrielle and Andre produced a track that included conversation, clips of Andre’s music and improvisation with Ffion.

“There were moments when we listened to music that Andre loves, and he would be really emotional. He would have a good old cry at the music, but it was good emotion, it was happy and I think it helped him to come to terms with his situation.”

Every family that has been involved in ‘The Family Song’ project produces a final track. This track forms a musical portrait capturing the emotional world of the person, their relationships with their loved ones and the world around them.

Find out more about the work of our artists at stchristophers.org.uk/arts

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