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Turtle Song is a project for people with all forms of dementia and Alzheimer's, their companions (family or carers) to have fun, be inspired and to sing together as a group, while writing a collection of different songs. It is a collaboration between the English Touring Opera, Royal College of Music and the Turtle Key Arts. Turtle Song projects have taken place across the UK, but this is the first in the North West.

The sessions have been taking place at the University’s Kingsway Campus with a specially selected group of student musicians, led by composer Michael Bryan and Philippa Bryan from Turtle Key Arts.

The group of 20 participants, along with student musicians, volunteers and staff, has been busy working on Postcards from Chester, a musical exploration of the sights and sounds of Chester. The songs are based on experiences of life in the city, including going to the races, Chester Zoo, the Eastgate Clock and the River Dee, with musical interludes based on the Roman history.

Each session starts with a vocal and physical warm-up, with gentle exercises before the group performs the song written the previous week. Working with the musicians, including second year students on the BA Popular Music Performance programme, the group then embarks on the next song. The participants break into small groups, to reminisce about the places named in the song titles, before developing the lyrics together with the students, who get to put their song writing skills into practice.

The participants are predominantly from the Chester area and live in the community with their family or carers. Some are brought to the sessions in transport provided by the ECT (Ealing Community Transport) charity.

A special performance of the culmination of nine weeks of this work will take place on Wednesday, October 31 for friends and family. 

PhD student, Deborah Thomas, has been helping to facilitate the sessions. She said: “It is a fantastic way for the participants and their family or carers to share something together. It’s been so lovely to see friendships develop between couples and how everyone can be themselves and have fun.

“Everyone joins in singing and dancing and it really is a truly happy place. It fills your heart full of hope and you feel positive and energised at the end of each session.”

Dr Ruth Dockwray, Associate Professor in Popular Music at the University, said: “We’re extremely proud to host Turtle Song at the University and it is a real honour to work with Turtle Key Arts. The benefits for the students is immense. Everyone is so happy to be here and seeing the performance of the songs lifts your spirits for the whole day.”

The project will last nine weeks, but students at the University would like to take the project further.

Amélie Pradel, who is studying for a MA in Music, said: “Music has helped me in a lot of ways growing up and is always what I turn to in moments of uncertainty. I think we hugely underestimate the power of music and how it can positively affect our day to day lives.

“The project has been a real eye-opener when it comes to using music as a facilitator, not only for therapeutic purposes, but to bring people together regardless of age, gender, disease, profession, ethnicity, disabilities, mental health issues and so on. We all live with a certain label, but for 'Turtle Song', the only labels needed are the ones with our names on and that's what I love about it. It has been about building a safe space/environment to be able to connect with others, to be yourself, share ideas, bring back memories, create something meaningful and have a laugh!

“The whole process has been incredibly interesting, noticing the way participants gradually rebuild their confidence during the weeks, observing how their physical engagement skills improve, seeing people’s faces light up when music is being played, watching them sway and clap to the rhythm, seeing people interacting with each other, laughing and singing their hearts out. The power of music never ceases to amaze me. I feel privileged to have been part of such an incredible human experience.”  

Holly Roberts, who has recently graduated with a degree in Popular Music Performance and plays bass in the band, said: “I’ve always wanted to work with people with Alzheimer’s ever since my Nain had it and sadly passed. It was really interesting to me and when I found out that my biggest passion, music, can be an escape for the people suffering and can bring parts of them back.

“There was a lady on the first day who sat completely quietly and didn’t say anything or move. Now whenever she hears the music she’s banging her hands together and shaking her legs and making conversation! It’s amazing and so worthwhile to do and can’t wait to start my full time career in this sector.”

David and Anne Clements have both been participating in the sessions. David said: “It is very, very special and the musicians are not only technically very capable, but they are inspirational in what they do. They inspire and encourage us.”

Anne, who plays viola and is now part of the band, added: “I’m gobsmacked by the whole wonderful thing. I thought it would be good for David and I to do together but it has challenged me to do new things and play in a different way than I usually do. The young people are all so professional and talented.”

This project has been led by composer Michael Bryan and director Philippa Bryan. Speaking about the project, they said: “It has been an absolute privilege to work, sing and play with such a lovely group of people. The inspiring, moving and often very funny stories that we have shared and the music we have created together have culminated into a rather uniquely beautiful piece of work, which only a truly collective spirit could have produced. The students have been fantastic throughout the project and have shown real enthusiasm and a warm engagement with the participants. It has been inspiring to see them flourish, offering their own ideas and performing together. They are a credit to Chester’s Performing Arts Department - to whom we are also most grateful for the ongoing support they have provided throughout the project.”

Charlotte Cunningham, Artistic Director of Turtle Key Arts, said: “On behalf of all of the partners (TKA, ETO and RCM) I am delighted to see how successfully the project is running in Chester and very grateful to the inspirational leaders and for the support of Ruth and the University of Chester and that I hope we can find funding and support to bring it back again in the future.”

The Philip Barker Centre for Creative Learning at the University of Chester is joining with Turtle Key Arts to develop another project.

Nick Ponsillo, Director of the Philip Barker Centre for Creative Learning at the University, said: “We are delighted to be able to join forces with Turtle Key Arts to develop a new training initiative as an extension of the Turtle Song project. The training workshops will take place on the 29th and 30th of November. They are an opportunity for health professionals, musicians, artists and students from across the North West to experience the Turtle Song processes and see how being creative with the arts, and music in particular, can be a powerful tool to connect, grow, learn, discover, reinvent, have fun, make friends and live well with dementia.”

To find out more about the workshops and to experience the magic of Turtle Song please contact r.betts@chester.ac.uk

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