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An Interview with: Janet Fulton, Manchester Camerata

Music in Mind
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Janet has played with Manchester Camerata since 1981, taking up the official mantle of Principal Percussionist, a role created especially for her, 40 years ago. Alongside an extensive musical career playing with Camerata and other orchestras such as the BBC Philharmonic, she has also found space to devote her time, energy and expertise to non-profit organisations and charities, making a difference in local communities.

As someone who has been an integral part of the Music in Mind programme since its inception, we were so pleased that Janet was able to give us the time to tell us more about her own experiences of Music in Mind, including the impacts the programme has had on her personally and professionally, and her hopes for its future as part of the Centre of Excellence for Music & Dementia.

You’ve been part of Music in Mind since it began – how did you first get involved and why?

I’ve always personally worked in education and care environments, right the way through my life. As Camerata evolved, they also developed in both those areas, so it has been great to combine them both. I’ve worn many hats in these projects, working in both composer and musician roles. Now with Music in Mind, alongside some excellent therapists, I’m also able to be heavily involved in training Music Champions.

When Music in Mind itself began, I was part of a small pool of players who were already working in a community setting so this allowed me to get involved very early on. I’m keen on doing anything that enables people to have a voice, so Music in Mind fitted in perfectly with my passion to do this.

What effect has Music in Mind had on you as both a musician and as a person?

I think the programme is more challenging to a musician, or Music Champions with any kind of performance background, as you have to completely drop any idea of you needing to perform. That’s not what it’s about. Music in Mind is all about music as a language of communication, having a musical conversation and sharing. Although, when everything comes together and everyone is joining in it can still feel a bit like a performance! It’s so amazing and energising when it happens, even though that’s not the aim at all.

The other challenging part as a musician is the improvisational aspect. When I was at college, I was taught purely on Western orchestral percussion instruments, and improvisation was not on the curriculum, unless you were on a jazz course. So, this became an entirely new skillset that I had to learn, acting as a supporter and an enabler, giving the space and time for people to start producing sound and creating contact.

Every Music Champion will have different challenges whatever their background, but in the end, it’s just about being a human being with another human being and creating non-verbal connection through music and body language.

This really is the best thing I’ve ever done, and I think that is because of the depth of connection you gain through the music. It’s also humbling to see people living under extreme circumstances, looking after somebody living with dementia and having to renegotiate and rebuild their relationship to that person as a carer, rather than a friend or lover. Yet within the music sessions they once again speak a common language and find new ways to communicate. They get that person and their meaningful connection back.

Some people living with dementia end up joining other musical groups too, singing in a choir or with a guitar group, or they start dancing in a session that leads to playing music in the kitchen and dancing with their partner at home. There’s a couple at one place I go where she has bought instruments so that when grandchildren come to visit the whole family can play music together. She knows that by doing that the whole family can engage with him. How can you not be touched by that?

One other amazing moment that springs to mind was where somebody attending one of the Music Cafés had passed away and his widow wanted people attending the wake to experience the joy of music making just as her husband had done. Together with some other volunteers I went along and started just softly playing keyboard in the background before they felt it was the right time to share out the instruments and do a bit of music making together. It just underlined to me how important people feel this is within their lives to want Music in Mind involved on such a significant day.

The Music Champions programme is one of the latest stages in Music in Mind’s evolution – how have you found it?

Music Champions is such a great idea. As with any project you’re involved in, it finishes and it’s always a wrench, especially when it goes really well, because you really get to know people. Yet, everywhere I’ve been within a care home they have continued music sessions and helped develop them further afterwards. One thing they quite literally want to beat the drum about is how it has enabled them to communicate with their residents in a totally different way. They feel this approach should be used throughout everything they do with that resident within the care home and music should be a part of the care plan itself.

There’s a lot of beneficial therapeutic things for people working in the care industry with Music in Mind. It helps develop more confidence, as when they start to use the programme they see how it affects both themselves and the people in their care in a variety of situations. You also gain an appreciation for and comfort with moments of silence, that ability to ‘just be’ and not just be the leader of a group. It can be a bit frightening to start with - people worry about not being particularly great at playing or singing – but I always keep reminding them that we’re not asking them to do anything different than what we are asking the participants to do and share in. Rather we are showing the Music Champions that doing less is actually doing more, as you give participants more of a voice rather than block their sound and rhythm out with your own.

We are essentially providing a toolkit and the training in using these different tools. Music Champions can pick tools out as and when they need them in each session, whether it’s spotlighting somebody or opening yourself out to engage the wider group or many other techniques. You won’t use every tool every week, but they are there when you need them. I think it’s actually really good to have these tools just generally in life – it makes you more aware of people and body language. It’s an enriching experience.

Now that the Centre of Excellence has been announced and awarded, how do you feel that this will help carry Music in Mind forward?

Whenever you do something that’s worthwhile you find yourself saying, “Oh if only we could do more of this!” Well now we can. Although, we are still just scratching the surface. The numbers for funding and who we can reach might seem huge in one sense, but they are tiny in the percentage of how many people actually live with dementia. However, this is a fantastic start and brilliant for Greater Manchester.

The Centre of Excellence gives us a chance again to further develop the training and hopefully Music Champions will find multiple uses for the techniques they learn. It could be that they volunteer to go to more homes and centres or find they use the same techniques in other parts of their work and life. The idea that studies will be run concurrently too I hope means that the NHS will be more willing to fund this type of care around the country as part of social prescribing, reducing the need for pharmaceutical medication and GP appointments. Maybe we can also train other orchestras so that different towns and cities can kick start their own programmes. I just want to shout the good news out and share it as widely as possible.

This truly is an amazing experience to share, and I feel very blessed to be part of it. I would encourage as many people as possible to give it a go - it is such a positive thing in one's life. Being in the moment is so beneficial. There’s no time to worry about anything else, you just have to concentrate on listening, listening, listening. All the participants, not just the people living with dementia, can experience the lasting effects. Everyone involved gets to enjoy the more positive frame of mind at the end of each session after their adventure through the music.