The Origins of Singing for Wellbeing

Evolving from a variety of discussions by David Walters, Professor June Boyce-Tillman and Jackie Shipster, Singing for Wellbeing was born out of a mutual curiosity and interest in the relationship between singing, the brain and dementia. 

With founders of the Music Research Institute, such as Dr Anthony Storr and Professor Paul Robertson dedicating their working lives to the effects and correlations of music, the body and brain, it seemed to be a natural progression for the MRI to support and fund such a project as Singing for Wellbeing, which embodied and encompassed MRI’s drive for knowledge and for the discovery of the power and complexities that music has to offer.
The first point of call was to establish how much research had been gained in the area surrounding music and dementia in order to ascertain whether such a relationship could be nurtured and maintained in a workshop setting. 

Nationally, Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Music, Arts and Health, led by Professor Stephen Clift, had published the excellent research paper, “Singing for the Brain” in 2007 and on his recent visit to the University of Winchester talked of over 50 existing research papers in this field.What emerged, as we began to trawl through existing research, was proven and well-documented evidence of the efficacy of singing with this client group. The Alzheimers Society had accepted it to the point of trade marking their SftB sessions, appointing regional co-ordinators and featuring as a major part in the Alzheimers Society Xmas appeal. (David Walters) 

Upon finding such a vast and expansive body of research, the MRI felt confident in funding a project that had prevalence in the musical field and would be worthwhile in aiding the achievement of positive results for those with dementia. In October 2012, Singing for Wellbeing’s first session took place at The Discovery Centre in Winchester, Hampshire, England. 

Led by Sandra Thibault, an experienced workshop leader who had previously been working on The Alzheimers Society Scheme Singing for the Brain in the nearby town of Eastleigh, Singing for Wellbeing sessions explored and perfected both content and process ideas that had already thoroughly been road tested and introduced new adaptations of Sandra’s own methodologies which she felt bettered the experience of singing and dementia. Assistant, Jackie Shipster describes this; 

The sessions will evolve over the weeks, not sticking to the effective but somewhat rigid template of the Alzheimers SftB, but allowing for flexibility and spontaneity, led by the suggestions of the particular group who evolve.  We'll try and find out what their own favourite songs are, sometimes we'll use instruments, and in due course, encourage those who can, to leave their chairs and move to the music, if they feel like it. We also use echoing rhythms with Sandra’s pretty and varied collection of soft percussion instruments. (Jackie Shipster)

The sessions did in fact evolve over the weeks and with numbers rapidly increasing, the workshop became required to move to larger premises in Winchester in order to be able to accommodate the number of participants, carers and volunteers! Singing for Wellbeing now resides in the centre of Winchester at The United Church.

Providing a harmonious environment, the workshop not only supplies an array of musical tools, but also aids in creating a safe space for those with dementia to meet others in similar situations and for carers and family alike to share experiences and support one another. However, aswell as establishing a social environment, singing is used in order to engage and exercise muscles associated with memory, the brain and articulation. In doing so, the process can be greatly attributed to relieving and helping to erode the predominant characteristics of communication and memory loss. Using recall of well known songs, the act of singing within the workshop can be seen to involve and harness a working relationship with both intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of the brain and body.