Songmaking for people with an acquired brain injury

Just back from my session at Stocksbridge Neuro Rehabilitation centre where I spent some enjoyable time making up songs with residents. The first resident I worked with had spent the last 18 months moving from institution to institution. He was able to speak fluently and suffered from paralysis down the left hand side of his body. This was the first time I had met him and understandably he was a bit depressed about his situation. I began by asking what music he liked and I was soon playing some flamenco on my baritone ukulele much to his amusement. This broke the ice and I sang a couple of jazz standards before he offered me a cup of tea. I asked if they make good tea here and he said they do to which I replied that I everything feels a little bit better with a nice cup of tea. This became the first line of the song and later lines resulted from our banter about tea making. The resident joined in singing and p;ling along on the tambourine and by the end of the session the resident seems visibly relaxed and happier. We discussed how during the music making we had forgotten about the past and the future and we felt better for this. I explained that I might sing the song we had made up with other people who are suffering and it might bring them some relief too. The resident was very happy with this outcome and invited me to return next time. The session ended at a natural point and I moved on.

The second resident that I spent time with this week was initially quite unresponsive when I introduced songs that he had previously enjoyed such as “you are my sunshine” and “she’ll be coming round the mountain”. After one song he began to tell me about his stamp book and the 2 stamps that he needs to complete it. I began to sing about this and his enthusiasm for this was immediately evident. We continued to sing for over 10m, inventing new verses and returning to a wonderful call and response chorus.

For me both these situations were very successful because I improvised using the immediate environment. In the first situation, in the absence of a clear starting point, I provided the initial stimulus by asking of the persons favourite music. From then my approach is to reciprocate what was given back to me beginning with flamenco and then making up a song about tea when I was offered a cup. The result of this is, in my subjective observation, clear and meaningful two way communication. In the second example the song was the response to a story told to me and the immediacy of this increased the likelihood that it would be of interest to the resident.

To engage with a person musically the material must be of interest to the participant. We can of course draw on our repertoire to find the songs that a person likes – another method is to involve the immediate interests and environment to improvise material that is truly person centered.