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Music in Mind – Taiwan

Manchester Camerata
Taiwan Concert Hall 640x320
Taiwan Concert Hall 1200x480

Our Music in Mind team has just been in Taiwan, working with the National Symphony Orchestra and sharing our fantastic Music in Mind music-based therapy for people living with dementia. Lizzie Hoskin (Head of Community) , Amina Hussain (Principal Flute) and Janet Fulton (Principal Percussion) were there for just over a week. We asked Janet to write us a short blog about her experiences in Taiwan, read more below!


The National Symphony Orchestra of Taiwan has been a part of Camerata’s life since 2018, when we first started training musicians, therapists, nurses and carers in Music in Mind in Taiwan, and were privileged to welcome a return delegation who visited us and experienced our work.

During Covid lockdown, whilst also working for the NHS , the interaction with our musical friends in Taiwan – along with Withernsea Ladies Choir – were my only two tiny beacons of musical light, with everyone taking part were in their own home, lots of little boxes on the screen.

When lockdown ended, one of my most bizarre moments was observing two Music in Mind sessions in a care home in Taipei, whilst sitting in a car park with a flask of coffee at York University at 7.30am, since I would need to go straight to tutor for Yorchestra at 10am – the power of the internet!

Travel and arrival

Travelling across was long but felt safe with the two packed Emirates Air Bus 380s – over 600 people on board, amazing.

Arrived at Taipei airport, and after the usual delays one finds at immigration, found the car arranged for us to take us to the hotel. The road system is like a 30-mile spaghetti junction where the long spaghetti, or maybe I should say noodles, have been thrown high in the air and left there hovering. (One thing I learnt about noodles on the trip was that you must not break them when serving, since they represent a long life, and to break them would be bad luck!)

We were met by some of the wonderful NSO team, including Rina and Arthur, plus former colleague Iris, who welcomed us with presents, including traditional Taiwanese pineapple cake from Iris, and a tote bag and picture from the NSO featuring the orchestra and the office team illustrated as cats!

Day Three (first full day in Taiwan) – site visit to the NSO and the daycare centre

We went to the incredible National Concert Hall building that is home to the NSO after wandering around downtown Taipei in the morning: we discovered that there are as many floors below ground as there are in the skyscrapers above! A true subterranean city.

Similar to its shopping districts, we went a few floors underground to the offices and studios deep below the concert hall itself and met with the Rina and Arthur again, along with Juno the translator, and went through the planning we had sent, and saw the studio space we were going to use.

We had done virtually all the planning for the workshops beforehand, though, mirroring the project, nothing is set in stone – so that we can adapt to the needs of the workshop participants. Our aim, though, was, in the short time available, to give a taste of the ethos involved and share the effect it has on participants. That was exciting because however good training is online, there is nothing like being there in the moment, sharing together. We shared some tea and Taiwanese cream puff biscuits (like profiteroles filled with marshmallow), before travelling by car to the newly opened community centre where the actual elder Music in Mind workshops were to be held. Again, pristine condition, since we were going to be the first organisation to use the space, and, as is tradition, we took off our shoes at the door into the room. Just as well that my musical socks didn’t have holes in… So, anticipation rising for the first day of training, as we ventured back to the hotel and explored the big department store down the road, Sogo, to eat in its food court that evening.

Day Four – Training Day

After a magnificent breakfast in the main hotel atrium (with at least 150 different foods from around the world including 6 various types of noodle-based dishes, bespoke fried eggs, cinnamon rolls, salad, bao buns, guava and dragon fruit salad etc), we were brought by car back to the Concert Hall, and into the studio.

We met the first group of 15 trainees – teachers, musicians, people working for the Taiwanese equivalent of the NHS within the disability sector, and those working regularly with elders – all from a myriad of backgrounds, ages and experiences, which was really enriching.

We went through some of the music therapeutic techniques used and – through role play and experiencing working with each other – we hoped to give everyone enough methodology to use the next day with the elders. We then repeated the same training with another second group of 15 in the afternoon. I noticed how clean the studio space was: I wore white patterned trousers and, as is the way of Music in Mind, it involved a lot of kneeling down on the floor – but no sign of dirt or dust on them by the end of the day!

Due to the different make up of each group of participants, each training session went in slightly different directions as expected, but we managed to finish each session with all the basics included. The Alzheimer’s Society has excellent introductions to dementia and the brain, and in the afternoon we used their Bookcase analogy. Fortunately, we had forewarned Juno, our interpreter, so she could look up the Mandarin translations of hippocampus and amygdala beforehand!

That evening we were invited to dinner by Lydia Kuo, the CEO of the NSO, with Ralph Rogers and Sandy Chi of the British Council in Taiwan, who have also previously funded some online workshops with NSO. We met in a traditional restaurant at the top of a very glamorous, glossy and typically giant 20-storey shopping mall in central Taipei and were treated to a wonderful showcase of traditional Taiwanese dishes (including seafood soup, aubergine fries, plus shaved ice and sweet beans for pudding), whilst chatting about how the Music in Mind project has evolved over 12 years, and how our international work with them had facilitated a whole new way of training back in the UK, enabled in part by the British Council, and by forward-thinking people like Lydia.

Day Five – Music in Mind Sessions at the Community Centre

So, this morning off to the community centre. The plan for both sessions was a refresher hour with the group, then an hour with elders who’d been invited the Music in Mind session, and then an hour to digest and reflect on what had happened in the session. We had no prior knowledge of the background of the elders, just as we do at the start of any Music in Mind project. However, we had no fears about the sessions not working, since music is an international language, and giving people control to lead that music as they wish works wherever we are.

And boy, did the elders respond! ‘I feel free!’ was the cry of a participant in the afternoon, and the magical moments were there for all to see throughout. One gentleman in the afternoon was having a bad day within his dementia but, by the end, and with the help of Arthur (one of the NSO background team who has worked with Camerata over several years and been imbued with the therapeutic ethos), he was dancing around the group with me, fully involved. So many of the elders at the end were asking about coming back next week, they had obviously really enjoyed themselves and it was great when they realised they were being listened to. Some of the trainees as well as us were really moved by the powerful positive reactions they witnessed within the group.

Day Six – Reflecting on the Training and a Trip to the River

So, we were now officially finished, but the three of us had collectively decided to stay for two more nights, since it was a long way to come and not experience a little more of the surrounding area. We ended up walking over 11 miles including to the huge Tamsui River (although no local, either when checking the route at the hotel, or whilst walking en route, could believe we actually wanted to walk!). But the walking was the best bit – so much that was different to see: temples, incense shrines, popular street food stalls in a tiny alleyway, cyclists everywhere and multiple ‘countdown’-style pedestrian crossings. Richard from the British Council had recommended walking around the old town, where Amina got very excited about the haberdashery section!

Once at the river we found a cup of coffee and sat and watched flying fish jumping and skipping across the still waters, heard many different types of new exotic birdsong, and saw kingfishers and white egrets flying low catching flies. Tired from the walk, we then ventured underground for our first excursion on the metro (only 20p for a 30 minute trip!).

Lydia very kindly enabled us to attend what was a private concert that evening, and it was great to experience an incredible concert from the stalls for once instead of the stage, including a really charismatic Gil Shaham performing the Brahms Violin Concerto, and spotlighting super musicianship within the orchestra with Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben in the second half. After the concert Lydia introduced us to different members of the orchestra including the leader Richard (halfway through his military service and comes to rehearsals in his army uniform) and conductor Jun Markl.

Day Seven – A Trip to the Volcanic Mountains

Again proving the generosity of the wonderful people we met, Shannon, the principal harpist with the NSO, and one of the first team to come to see us in the UK a few years back, invited us to her home in the hills. In order to get there Juno, our wonderful interpreter (who is a specialist in maintaining harps), and her American husband Andy, collected and took us in their car. We first met at Shannon’s home, had hot drinks, and then ventured even further up the 60% gradient hills to a small family-run restaurant surrounded by fields and dormant volcanic mountains. The food was delicious, especially the brine cooked chicken and locally grown vegetables, overlooking the city in the distance when the clouds broke. We then ventured even further up into the clouds to see (and smell!) the bubbling sulphur springs proof that we were indeed on the slopes of an actual volcano!

On the way back down, we explored an American ex-army village, with the buildings left there by the occupying soldiers army are now mainly used as cafes, art centres, and housing. Throughout our stay, we were blown over by the generosity and warmth of these wonderful people, and they, and the sessions with the elders, were the highlight of our stay there.

In the evening I was wandering the shops within the Howard Plaza Hotel, and came across two guitarists rehearsing in a gift shop. I went back to my room and picked up my laptop cajon which I had brought with me for the sessions, and asked if I could play something with them. This ended up with 30 minutes of music making together, playing standards from the charts of the 70s 80s and 90s. Later, when meeting up with Amina and Lizzie, we went back to the same shop and they were still there, so Amina ended up singing along with them, and I played a chair, hopefully in time to the music, so that was fun too.

Day Eight – The Last Day in Taipei

We weren’t due to leave the hotel until the evening, so our friend Sarita, a freelance harpist with NSO, took us to a tiny coffee house nearby which was really the back of a house but was very stylish. Coffee has only just started being a big thing in Taiwan, and been partly propelled by social media, which has made the places we went to destinations for coffee drinking. A couple of days before, Amina, at some cost, had procured the only bag of coffee beans grown in Taipei that was left – there is a shortage at the moment, but plans to grow a lot more in the future. We said our goodbyes to the hotel staff at 8pm, when the lovely Rina came all the way to check us safely into the taxi and see us on our way to the airport.

Flying back we experienced some significant jolts of turbulence over the Himalayas, but we all arrived safely back in Manchester a full 19 hours after we left Taipei. We’re left reflecting on the wonderful time we had there, the new friends and connections we made and – hopefully – a lasting impact for the elders out there who so enjoyed the freedom that the methods of Music in Mind gave them. We can’t wait to return!