“Presence, not performance”: Reflecting on Bev Foster’s ‘Music in Dementia Care’ workshops

Created Out of Mind collaborator Gemma Goodall talks about the insights she has gained from being involved in Bev Foster’s ‘Music in Dementia Care’ workshops. 

Over the last month I had the fantastic opportunity to assist with all three of Bev Foster’s ‘Music in Dementia Care’ workshops. In addition to being a performer, songwriter, and music educator, Bev Foster is the founder of the Room 217 Foundation. Room 217 is a Canadian not-for-profit organisation dedicated to music and care. The workshops gave an overview of the music care approach and taught individuals how to integrate musical strategies into the care environment.   

Each of the three workshops was wonderfully different, characterised by the diverse range of individuals in attendance. Students, researchers, activity co-ordinators, and healthcare professionals were just a few of the different backgrounds present. The group dynamic on all three days provided rich discussion and insightful anecdotes, contributing to the whole learning experience.

Whilst writing this reflection I have found it a difficult task to pick just one aspect of the workshop to focus on. I could discuss in detail how music is ‘cross-coded’ into our life events, or perhaps describe the fun we had with our ‘egg conversations’ in which we used egg shakers to communicate with one another. The smaller details of the workshop also resonated with me; especially that of the Canadian term ‘care-partners’ as opposed to ‘caregivers’. Through the simple changing of a word, the caring relationship is instantly equalized.

However, it is one particular quote of Bev’s that I think efficiently ties everything together: “The focus of music care is presence, not performance”. This is certainly not to undermine the talent of many musicians; it is rather to give confidence to those who may question their ability to use music in a care environment. Taking singing as an example, the quality of the performance can be considered secondary to how we communicate. It is the presence- the engagement- that can be thought to create a meaningful connection between people.

This message was constantly brought into mind throughout the teaching of three music strategies that can be integrated into music care; breathing, humming, and singing. One particular moment that shone out for me personally was the ‘Humming Boat’.  The group stood and huddled closely, as if on a boat, and hummed together. On all three days, all individuals (including those who claimed they couldn’t sing), created a beautiful, unique resonance. Through being present, we listened and adapted to one another, shifting our tones in response to the changing sound around us. Being aboard this metaphorical space for connectedness emphasized the ‘in the moment’ experiences that are currently being focused on within arts and dementia research.  

Each workshop finished on a beautifully confluent note, with the group singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. Bev’s marvellous piano playing filled the room as we stood in a circle to sing. Considering the aforementioned variation of the groups throughout the three days, each performance was of course different. Nevertheless, a positive and connected atmosphere was created through the presence of each individual.

In addition to the wealth of useful information given at the workshops, particularly that of the singing program Pathways, it was inspiring to see people being encouraged to step out of their comfort zones in order to learn something that can be instantly applied to the care environment. The attitude that anyone can use music in care is an extremely helpful one. By giving more people confidence to work with music, whether it be with egg shakers or through the voice, more individuals living with dementia are sure to benefit. 

I would like to thank Bev Foster for coming all the way from Canada to share her knowledge and experience with us at the University of Nottingham and at the Wellcome Hub in London.


For more information on Room 217 Foundation and their fantastic resources, you can visit their site https://www.room217.ca/.