The power of song for people with dementia: a carer's view

17th December 2012

On Thursday 13 December at Dulwich College, a group of people with dementia and their carers performed a song cycle they had written themselves, based on paintings on show at Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London.

The project, entitled Visual to Vocal and coordinated by ETO’s Tim Yealland, brought together dementia sufferers, their carers, Dulwich Picture Gallery, students from Dulwich College and a student from the Royal College of Music in an engaging, frequently very funny yet deeply moving performance.

Visual to Vocal is a continuation of ETO’s highly successful Turtle Song project,a long-term partnership, now in its 5th year, with Turtle Key Arts and the Royal College of Music

One of the carers, Linda le Merle, writes below about the transformative nature of the Visual to Vocal workshops .

This article originally appeared in and is reproduced by kind permission of’s Adult Care Blog

When my husband retired he took up again the hobbies he had enjoyed before – painting and choir singing.

The time came when he could no longer follow the music or the conductor’s instructions, and his painting became so abstract that he didn’t enjoy doing it. At that time – a few years ago now – there was little in the way of art and music on offer to people living with dementia apart from as tools in psychotherapy, and normal day or evening classes could not offer the support needed.

The situation has changed considerably now, and there are various possibilities around for people with memory problems and associated disabilities to join in with the same kind of activities which those of us lucky enough not to have memory problems can still enjoy.

Creative process

Visual to Vocal at Dulwich Picture Gallery has been enormous fun for both carers and cared for people, and, it seems, for the leaders, musicians and gallery staff. We were told that we would be composing songs about paintings, but we could never have anticipated how much we would all be involved in the creative process according to our abilities or how much those paintings would belong to us in very personal ways after the songs were written.

We are a group of very mixed abilities – some of us have beautiful voices, some of us hide our croak in the joint singing; some of us have art history up to our eyebrows, for some of us looking at pictures is a novelty; some of us are outspoken, some of us just listen and mouth a few sounds to the music.

Respect for individuality

Project leaders Tim Yealland (director, English Touring Opera) and Rachel Leach (composer, English Touring Opera) have ensured that this is mixed ability teaching and learning at its best, where all our contributions to the lyrics, however surreal, are valued and used within a very general scenario of the story behind a painting, and where the greatest respect is shown for individuality.

Philippa Owen (Dulwich Picture Gallery guide) introduces us to paintings in the gallery and then we go back to the Linbury Room where we all warm up – voices, fingers, toes and smiles – and then we group together to suggest what might be being said in a painting, what kind of person is portrayed and what stories lie behind the paint on the canvas. We share our ideas and write the lines, Tim co-ordinates the stories, Rachel sets the mood and the lines to music, Lou Abbotts (project coordinator at Dulwich Picture Gallery) puts the song on the overhead projector, the other musicians join in with the keyboard – and we sing!

Transformative process

You have only to look at the faces and body language of several of the participants to see what a transformative process this has been. Across the room there was a lady whose face was rather disapproving and cautious because she couldn’t understand what was going on. Now she smiles, moves freely and contributes her best, and this reaction is repeated around the room.

Visual to Vocal has been a life-enhancing experience, and there are not so many of those for people living with dementia. If the guests at the concert get any pleasure from the performance it cannot possibly match the pleasure and benefit given to us by the many people who have been involved in the project.

Picture credit: Jane Airey

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