Rob Tilsley (Music Leader / Intergenerational Coordinator) talks to Anna about our music workshops in this extra care residential setting

Two residents sit opposite one another playing balafon surrounded by recording equipment
Two residents explore the balafon instrument as a recording is being made (June 2023). The players sat opposite one another to interact in the style of Ugandan musicians.

Question: What have you noticed (perhaps themes or moments) that have struck you as interesting in the music sessions?

‘Patience’ could be a theme – for the residents, it seems that time has a different meaning in some ways, so it’s funny when our worlds meet. For example, I was worrying about the time it was taking me to set up the recording equipment, and N reassured me that waiting is something they do a lot in their day-to-day lives and they’re often waiting for things like prescriptions and appointments. Waiting to set up for a recording was fine, it was exciting, they were appreciative that I was putting effort in for them on something creative.

I feel like the group is continuing to defy some potential negative perceptions that society may hold when thinking of older people living in a residential care setting. For example, it might be assumed that people wouldn’t be interested in learning or trying new things or that they may have fixed ideas about repertoire and music-making. The reality has been quite the opposite. I have continued to be inspired every week by their curiosity and openness to new things. I’ve got everything back that I’ve put into the group a hundredfold. This may have been from bringing in the electric drum kit (described in our earlier blog here), introducing them to a ‘balafon’ (xylophone instrument originating from West Africa), or bringing a lap guitar, a ’Cuica’ and even our Operations Manager, Steve Blake came along to share a Cornish folk song (see photo below).

Delcie trying out a lap guitar

Q: What do you get back personally from the sessions?

The group is very curious to explore the instruments and they’ll all give things a go with great humour and genuine interest. It’s just a really lovely way to witness humans trying out new things. They’re very patient with themselves, each other, and even with me! They want to know more about things, like where it’s from and what you do with it. They waste absolutely no time getting creative with new instruments, which again I feel is inspiring and defies stereotypes. 

common room area of residential setting, with a man stood leading singing, two seated residents joining in
Operations Manager Steve making a guest appearance to share some folk songs

Something that I’ve found moving has been how much they have remembered from these new experiences and continued to talk about them for weeks afterwards. So, for example, I brought electric drums in for a few weeks, and they are still talking about it three months later. When June’s family came down to visit, it turned out that they knew about every single thing that we’d done because she’d been telling them all the details. She still wears the percussion shakers (Kashaka) as earrings every week – it’s definitely ‘her thing’!

I picked up on the fact that N is a good guitarist early on, but what hadn’t realised was just how high his musicianship skills really are. One example of how that’s shown itself has been on the Balafon. So, we had S and Delcie and June playing something loosely based on the Akadinda-style pattern. N, seamlessly, with huge musical sensitivity and creativity joined in with them on the electric guitar. I didn’t manage to catch the moment in a recording, but it was something amazing – musically interesting and not like something I’d heard before. It was a very unique and original approach that reframed the idea of fusion of styles for me – something undefined and somehow N had found his way to work around the tuning (non-concert pitch) of the balofons and added some colourations of jazz and blues. The results were distinctive and very new to my ears. 

Another time, N’s Guitar wouldn’t stay in tune – he’d got a new guitar from a charity shop (he loves finding new guitars) and it just kept going off-pitch. So, I gave him my guitar and gave him the opportunity to lead the group and he rose to the challenge. He led in his own way – brilliantly. It allowed me to focus on singing (a weaker thing for me) and I think it’s something we could incorporate more – he has these amazing abilities and he can extend his empathy and sensitivity to people too. It shines when he’s including people – he does what a good music leader should do naturally. It’s an inspiration that he can do that. I want to learn from him in that way through observing his interactions.

We are working around some practical aspects to the sessions, such as printing A3 lead sheets to make them easier to read. I am also designing the session time to maximise the lovely things I can see happening. The main aim for all of this is to continue to nurture and provide a respectful and creative space! 

four people gathered around a xylophone (balafon) and microphones
The recording session taking place, where Rob commented on the patience he was being shown. Listen to the track below ‘The Devonport View Blues’


LiveWest Activities Coordinator Mark Badham said:

“This captures the very essence and meaning of what musical participation is to the elderly…the experience of being able to play instruments from other cultures stimulates the mind and most importantly having fun. By using instruments from different cultures provides questions from residents about construction, materials used such has different types of wood. This interaction is vital for so many with varying mental health issues providing much needed focus in an otherwise confused thought process. To achieve this interaction takes a skilled and talented individual… Rob what you have provided helping many individuals week in week out in such a short space of time is truly outstanding and like the residents l really look forward to every Tuesday”