A hippo among fish: thinking about children and music


What’s really striking is the confidence with which these children are making music together – because, make no mistake, that is what they are doing. Themes invented by individual children are being developed by the class and their teacher into real pieces of music. The names (‘Cho – co – la – de – fon – tein’, ‘Bak – la – va’) are rhythmic mnemonics in sessions that deliberately avoid counting, and put their emphasis instead on listening. The violinists pluck and bow the notes, stamping their feet and chanting as each piece builds, develops its variations and ends. When someone has an idea they share it and the whole group takes it forward. Hands shoot up all the time as kids volunteer. The music doesn’t stop when someone makes a mistake, any more than it does in a concert hall. It’s already past and the music’s happy sinuous line goes on, accompanied by harmony and complicated rhythms. And laughter. I don’t remember hearing so much laughter in a school music class.

I’ve been watching the music classes run by Ukelila in Beringen, a former mining town in Eastern Flanders. Hans Van Regenmortel, whose ideas shape this distinctive approach to teaching music, has taken me from class to class, explaining some of what I’m missing because I don’t speak Dutch and because I’m not a musician. But the music itself is not obscured by these handicaps.


These children, many from immigrant families, are not among those who would normally access Belgium’s well-established public music schools. Ukelila, which is just three years old, now involves some 350 young people in music-making. Although the instruments are classical (they were bought before the project began) the approach is not. It’s unlikely that any of these children will learn to play the violin or clarinet to the standard required of an orchestra – although they may. But that’s not the aim. Ukelila does not want them to master their instruments but to befriend them, to experience the joy of music as a source of communication and expression and to understand that it really does belong to them. It is not technique that is being learned here: it’s musicality that’s being developed.

Later, I watch an orchestral rehearsal to which 40 to 50 children have come from their instrumental groups. They arrange themselves as an orchestra with violins, cellos, woodwind and brass, their teachers among them. The rehearsal begins with some of the pieces they’ve been working on – that chocolate fountain flows again – with Sven, one of the Ukelila tutors, conducting the group through an expressive series of gestures partly based on Soundpainting and partly worked out together. Then, as before, the children are invited to propose short themes they’ve invented for themselves: a clarinet player offers a seven note idea with – to me – a surprisingly tricky rhythm. Within 30 seconds all the children have got it and music is being created before me, swelling, falling, its accents marked now by the trumpets, now the strings. I’m not observing a class. I’m enjoying music.

I watch as a 10 year old begins a beatbox rhythm. The orchestra picks up and develops it, quickly drowning him out, but it doesn’t matter – it’s his rhythm he can hear them playing. At the end, I can see his face glowing with achievement. This is a moment in his life that will not be soon forgotten.


In the afternoon, I give a talk about music education that asks how helpful is  conventional music tuition designed to nurture the most gifted to most children. I contrast that approach with the excellent community music work I’ve seen in the Scottish fèisean,  Banlieues Bleues in Seine Saint Denis and elsewhere. Such talks must be prepared beforehand, but today I feel I’m behind the action. Everyone here knows this argument better than me. Music education is changing fast nowadays and Ukelila is one of many remarkable instances of how children are being taught that music is their own creative resource and a joy for life.

PS The title of this post comes from this passage in the talk:

Perhaps, after all, I am musical, not in being able to understand, explain or make music very well, but in my love of music and the place it has in my imagination. I recognise though that it is not my element. I can swim, but I am not a fish. A hippopotamus perhaps, bathing in this element that transforms the experience of a body used to lumbering about on land.

Participatory arts, older people and living with dementia – Guest blog

Since 2010, the Baring Foundation has focused on improving older people’s quality of life through opportunities to participate in the arts. The Foundation is small and so its work aims to influence policy and practice through projects, partnerships and publications. It has supported a very wide range of work in the past six years, which is documented on its own website and the Age of Creativity website. My own work on older artists, Winter Fires, was published by the Baring Foundation in 2012, and I subsequently joined them as a trustee, which has given me more insight into the range and quality of participatory art work being done with older people, not only in the UK, but in other European countries, the USA, Japan and elsewhere.

cARTrefu is an outstanding programme, supported by the Baring Foundation and Arts Council Wales. It is managed by Age Cymru, who also run Gawnwyn, Wales’Creative Ageing Festival, and works to make the arts a regular part of life in residential care. Launched in 2014, cARTrefu offers care homes short residencies by artists working in poetry, music, performance and visual art. Typically, the activity lasts a couple of hours each week and leads to a celebratory event in the final session. An evaluation of the first phase of work has shown very promising results, with 25% of homes commissioning the artists to continue their work after the initial residency.


Work like this is often unknown beyond the circle of those involved. By its nature, it is sensitive, intimate. It is very far from the dramatic shows that can happen in public space or art institutions. Its values are enacted not rhetorical. The art itself may seem, at a distance, rather ordinary. But that is to mistake surface – the big, splashy, ‘professional’ – for substance. Anyone who spends a little time participating in the kind of work the cARTrefu  artists do will understand what is happening between the people involved and how profound the experiences enabled by such artistic communication can be.

That is one reason why the opportunity to come together in conferences and festivals is so important in the field of art and older people. It not only gives the people involved a chance to meet and learn from others working in the field – it also provides a vital platform to showcase the work to society more widely. Emma Robinson, Age Cymru’s  Arts and Creativity Programme Manager, and Reg Noyes, cARTrefu Programme Manager recently attended the Alzheimer Europe conference in Denmark. Emma’s account of the experience, which I reproduce below with her permission, gives a valuable glimpse into growing world of participatory arts practice. We are an ageing country in an ageing continent. How we rise to that challenge – to that opportunity – will influence the lives of us all, which is one reason to be glad for the work described below.


10 things I learnt at the 26th Alzheimer Europe Conference: Excellence in Dementia Research and Care, 31 October – 2 November 2016, Copenhagen

Emma Robinson, Age Cymru


Seeing Core Act perform in a care home in Helsingor, Northern Denmark, near Hamlet’s castle. Core Act, a performance duo formed by Anika Barkan and Helene Kvint, create, share and collect stories and set up a realistic living space (kitchenette, living room, table) to talk with residents in free-flowing improvisations, using the residents comments as impetus for progressing the stories narratives. The stories are recorded and Anika and Helen then work with a sound artist to prepare sound files which are then shared online with the residents and their carers and families, with a view to schools using them as an educational social history resource.

One performer in the show wore an animal mask and interacted with residents non-verbally.  Anika and Helene explained that some residents, especially those who do not communicate verbally, find the presence of the deer comforting and feel more comfortable communicating with the animal than a performer, as the expectation to speak and be bombarded with a lot of questions that they potentially would have difficulty answering, isn’t there.  The emphasis is on the gentle non–verbal communication that people could roll with, to whatever level they wanted.

We’d like to see the cARTrefu gang working together to create a mobile installation, like Core Acts living space, that can be left out in the care homes in between the times they are there and includes elements from all four art forms for residents and staff to enjoy.



Seeing a conference about dementia attended by people with dementia – quite a rarity to see this and to see it being done as integral to the conference, not just a tokenistic ‘add on’


Realising that cARTrefu is huge! Most of the other projects presented alongside cARTrefu displayed results from 7 care homes, 12 care homes, 20 care homes, etc. cARTrefu’s nationwide, 128 care home-reach was seriously impressive and made cARTrefu stand out as perhaps one of the largest arts and dementia projects in Europe. Wow!


Picked up some practical tips on auditing your space to become more Dementia Friendly from Paul Hudson from Festival City Theatre Trust; when carrying out an audit of your space take the photos in black and white so you can see the contrast better, or more importantly notice the lack of contrast like on the stairs that may be more of a difficulty for someone with dementia. Also, put signage higher than you think you need it, signage in an empty foyer vs a foyer of  100s of people blocking out wall space.  Simple stuff that can easily be changed for the benefit of all, not just people with dementia.


It’s all about perspective… Pat McGonigal from the Scottish Dementia Working Group shared his granddaughter’s thoughts of his care home; ‘My granddad must be well rich, he lives in a great big house, all his mates live with him AND he has servants!’


Hearing more about peoples’ experiences of living with dementia. It’s not just a case of memory loss but can also be coupled with loss of emotion  and lack of emotional reaction too, in certain types of dementia – something that will be really useful to share with our cARTrefu artists as they carry out their residencies in Welsh care homes


The art of adaption: it was inspiring listening to various speakers talk honestly about their projects, both their successes, failures and surprises. Paolo Prolo’s presentation about the sensory garden designed by Enrico Sassi in Switzerland contained a long ramp that led residents living with dementia to a circular garden they could walk around. Residents though focused their attention on the long ramp as it was their way ‘back home’ again. The emphasis of the garden was re-designed so that the ramp included a view to the bowling green outside the care home, which rekindled memories of Pétanque.


Various presentations at the conference opened our eyes to the incredible partnerships in dementia happening all over the world, such as the Dutch police force working with regional dementia groups to promote a special water-tight box that people living with dementia keep inside their fridge and which contains information about their condition, medical history and next of kin in order to help the increasing number of people living alone with dementia from leaving home, becoming confused and going missing.


It’s just the little things but it also helps if you know how to do them! Nienke Van Wezel from the Dutch dementia friendly movement, Samendementievriendelijk screened some wonderful animated commercials that explain how you can ‘lend a hand’ to someone living with dementia as people do want to help, but they often don’t know how. These advertisements showed examples like how to keep an eye on a neighbour, opening the door or helping someone with dementia pick an item in a supermarket.  Small steps but all helps to break the stigma of dementia and acts an easy entry point into the work of the charity.


Tak til Baring Foundation for deres støtte og til Dr. Kat Algar på Bangor University for at gøre det hårde bit! Thanks to Google translate for this one as finally, always overwhelmed by the language skills of my mainland European colleagues, I sadly have to admit to the realisation that I am never going to master another language!