In the first of the BSG Creative Ageing SIG’s series on creative ageing in practice, Stuart Bruce (Senior Creative Producer at Orchestras Live) reflects on their intergenerational project Hear and Now. Orchestras Live is a national music charity and producer of professional orchestral work, with a remit to ensure communities across the country have access to world-class orchestral experiences. Orchestras Live champions audience development; inspires the young and rejuvenates the old, giving communities a voice and joining generations in award-winning projects.

Hear and Now

This year sees the tenth anniversary of an orchestral intergenerational project in Bedford, a project that has brought together teenage young people with older people to share in a creative process in which they could both contribute equally. The plan was to work collaboratively with a range of local residents, including older people, with an emphasis on giving them a central role in producing innovative music work.

As a national producer with long-standing partnerships with Bedford and the Philharmonia, Orchestras Live was at the leading edge of this initiative. A pilot project in 2009 with the community choir Fusion Youth Singing soon became an intergenerational collaboration together with Music 4 Memory, a choir for people living with dementia and their carers. Working with artistic leaders and players from the Philharmonia, the participants were involved in a sequence of projects consisting of workshops in which their ideas and reminiscences were the starting point for writing, singing and composing, leading to the creation of their own music, lyrics and poetry. To date, more than 700 people have taken part.

After ten years it’s a good opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the project but also reflect on the learning from this work. The project has always been about giving people a voice and a safe space to explore their own creativity. It has also been about bringing together different people to share their life experiences and aspirations. This exploration of memories, language and identity has been a rich source of material which was moulded into some extraordinary songs and instrumental music that the participants could perform alongside the Philharmonia. Young and older people found themselves on stage with world class musicians, singing, playing, narrating and even conducting. By creating music together in this way, the orchestral genre has become directly relevant to everyone.

The social outcomes have been significant. For the older people, the creative work not only gave them a new means of self-expression, sometimes with a positive impact on the relationship with their carer, but also enlivened the minds of people living with dementia. A typical comment was “You found yourself remembering what you had forgotten!” It showed that people with dementia can produce high quality music, learn something new, take creative risks, and benefit profoundly by being part of a dynamic community where their contribution is valued.

For the young people, making music with much older people gave them insight into the lives of a generation they knew little about, and had a positive effect on their perceptions, understanding and respect. Over time the integrated approach of Hear and Now saw the demarcation lines between the groups fade, becoming more of a unified ‘company’ as highlighted by one participant who said: “We gelled together so we were one group… we were like one family.”

In our practice we have already observed significant lasting impacts on the organisations involved, such as Music 4 Memory’s umbrella body, the Tibbs Dementia Foundation, broadening its reach by establishing satellite dementia choirs with the same intergenerational ethos. Later this year we will be collaborating with researchers at the University of Bedfordshire, further quantifying the impact of the intergenerational approach on participants’ sense of community and well-being, as well as the influence of such work on professional artists and musicians.

So what are the underlying challenges in delivering Hear and Now? Well, this work has all been achieved through a strong long-term partnership. Although one off events can be enjoyable, even inspirational, the legacy of these events is difficult to maintain. Thus, only through taking a long-term approach can a relationship take shape and find its path. Sustaining a project over ten years takes a lot of resourcing. In this case it has been achieved by Orchestras Live and the Philharmonia jointly undertaking a rolling fundraising strategy. Furthermore, with an international schedule the orchestral musicians cannot be in Bedford all the time, so we have enabled legacy building through the core groups’ own music leaders in the artistic delivery team, harnessing their invaluable experience and contributing to their professional development. We have also encouraged some of the young and older participants to develop their own leadership skills, learning alongside the professional leaders, to help increase local cultural capacity.

From my perspective, the reason Hear and Now has thrived for ten years is because it has been a constant evolution. It has never stood still. Not simply repeating a tried and tested formula because it worked in the past. What it has been is something rooted in the unique contribution that disparate individuals can bring to a collective endeavour, becoming a true celebration of all our skills and talents, life experiences, energy and the joy and wonder that comes from creating music together.