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Singing Across Generations

2nd November 2020

Jennifer Hill, Producer, Welsh National Opera

Jennifer Hill is using music to demystify dementia.

Having joined Welsh National Opera many years ago in the press office, she is now a producer in the Programmes and Engagement department and responsible for Cradle. An intergenerational creative arts project in Pembrokeshire, Cradle’s aim is to create greater awareness of what it means to live with dementia and how, with increased knowledge, individuals can create a more supportive society for those living with the disease.

Inspired by Jennifer’s own experience of her mother’s illness and modelled on a Swansea pilot The National Lottery initially funded a couple of years ago, the Milford Haven-based project launched in 2019 with a new adult choir and a schools programme. The weekly choir rehearsals are made up of people with dementia who are accompanied by friends, family members, carers and volunteers. “It’s a joyful hour,” says Jennifer. “We don’t talk about dementia, we just have a nice time singing and supporting each other and the chance to leave any concerns and stresses at the door and enjoy a supportive space.

Pre lockdown alongside the choir rehearsals an extensive programme with children from Milford Haven Community Primary School was running, bringing together young and older to make friends, better understand each other and have fun together. There is a magic that goes on between the school children and choir members and those in the local Day Centre, and it’s important for young people to experience and understand something they may well encounter later in life or already are in their own family networks.

“My mum died of the disease in 2017 and I remember wishing that I’d had a sort of dress rehearsal because there were so many things I didn’t know about it. Had I had that knowledge; I would have understood more and supported her better.”

When the pandemic struck, it looked as though the Cradle project would be forced to close due to the problematic nature of community singing. However, Jennifer was determined to keep the sessions going during a time of potentially extreme loneliness and uncertainty.

Despite the tricky challenge of moving the choir online – the majority of participants are 50 or older, and a lot of them didn’t even have a computer at home – Cradle evolved beyond a sing-a-long in mid-April, with short physical movement and breathing exercises for relaxation, as well as tongue twisters to keep the brain active, incorporated. During one of the virtual sessions, one member whose husband is in a care home – and whose son is the choir’s pianist – was able to be reconnected, the first time they had seen each other in 12 weeks.

The project was due to end in July with a sharing event for all participants, but inevitably was unable to take place in person. Determined that the show must go on, Jennifer organised a virtual event where members shared songs, alongside contributions from the creative team and short films created with school pupils.

Welsh National Opera is one of many fantastic causes who benefit from the £30 million raised by National Lottery players each week, and for Jennifer, the Arts Council of Wales Award came out of the blue: “I found it astonishing because there’s amazing work going on everywhere. Although it was originally my idea, there are some incredible people making it happen on the ground. The project is close to my heart and in the early days of lockdown, it was the thing that kept me going.”

“The hope is that at some point we’ll be back in our Pembrokeshire home, the Torch Theatre. The idea will then be that because we’ve got the technology, we could grow the programme with digital sessions so that more local care homes could link in. It’s all about the power of music to move, and if we can include more people, then all the better.”