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Backstage: A Conversation about Community and Gathering

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A conversation about the impact singing and playing together can have on individuals and communities.


Abigail Pogson (Managing Director – Sage Gateshead)

Craig Bankhead (Chief Executive – Gateshead Older People’s Assembly)

Holly Middleton-Spencer (The People’s Requiem)

Timothy Burke (Chorus Director, Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia)

Abigail has written a blog named On the power of gathering. 

Read here

Abigail Pogson: Hello. I’m Abigail Pogson, Managing Director of Sage Gateshead, and that was part of the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem. It was performed in Sage One, our largest auditorium, on the 28th of November 2021 by 89 orchestral musicians and a chorus of 210 singers. They were conducted by Royal Northern Sinfonia’s Principal Conductor, Dinis Sousa, and Director of the Chorus, Timothy Burke. The People’s Requiem, as we called it, was a thrilling night and a memorable one for all of the performers and musicians from a wide range of experiences. All of us at Sage Gateshead said the performance was a great way to mark the return to large scale music making and to remember those who lost their lives to COVID 19. This is the first in a series of podcasts in which we’re going to talk about music in the context of some of the big issues of our time as we start to recover from the pandemic and look ahead to the challenges of the next 20 years. Today, we’re discussing the power of music making, the impact that singing and playing together can have on individuals and communities and the special magic that occurs when musicians from a wide range of backgrounds come together to make music. That’s something we all missed very much during lockdown. I’m joined virtually by Holly Middleton Spencer, who we’ve just heard singing Verdi, Timothy Burke, who prepared the Chorus for the People’s Requiem, and Craig Bankhead of Gateshead Older People’s Assembly.

AP: Holly, I’m going to start with you, if that’s alright, and ask, as you sang in the People’s Requiem, what motivated you to take part in the project?

Holly Middleton Spencer: So it’s twofold, really. Over lockdown, I think that musicians took two routes. Either they were completely put off by lockdown playing music, or they spent all their spare time doing it. I was definitely a performer where I just lost all motivation to pick up my flute and my bassoon, and I just sat there in my bedroom. As soon as we could, I took every opportunity I could to be able to perform music, and this was one of the best opportunities I could take. Also, I personally lost a parent during lockdown, and we weren’t allowed to have a funeral. I know there are a lot of people who are also singing and also performing who had that exact experience. Because my stepmother loved music so much, and she loved Verdi so much, it was a little bit of a funeral for her, for me.

AP: Yes, as a piece. It’s a Requiem, isn’t it. It’s a mass. It’s a Requiem for the dead. One of the things about it that always strikes me is that it’s both an extremely solemn piece, but also there’s a huge power in it and something that’s extremely humane about it, something that’s unique about humanity and what music is in humanity. Could you describe a little bit what the experience of both the preparation and then ultimately the performance was?

HMS: Yeah. So we performed every Sunday for I think it was three months at the Sage. And then as it got closer, we started doing more and more rehearsals and eventually we played with the orchestra. And that first performance with the orchestra was absolutely amazing because beforehand we’d been playing with a pianist who was herself great. Having every single instrument and whatnot, it just made it so much greater.

AP: It’s extraordinary that moment where you hear the full colour, isn’t it?

HMS: Exactly, yes. Especially with the Dies Irae where it was just suddenly very, very loud. And for the first time, that was a bit of a shock when I was singing to go through that.

AP: Quite spine tingling.

HS: Yeah.

AP: And how about the group aspect? So you talked about being a musician and playing yourself. What difference does it make to play as a group and to be performing in such a big ensemble?

HS: I just think it’s an absolutely excellent opportunity because, as a non-professional musician, you rarely get that opportunity to perform in such a famous large space with so many other singers, especially when some people couldn’t read music and then some people were very obviously professional and to have that ability of being able to perform with everyone, that’s just something you rarely get. So I’m really thankful for that opportunity.

AP: Thanks, Holly. I’m going to open it up a little bit more now, if that’s all right, because I know that both Craig and Tim also perform. I wondered whether either of you wanted to comment on what it means to perform collectively as opposed to individually. Tim?

Tim Burke: Yeah. I think we’ve all learned how important group music making is. Personally, I think I previously underestimated the social factor of it. I think I previously thought that the social factor of group music making was a separate thing that happened after: people go for a coffee after the rehearsal or something like that and then that’s the social bit or the bit in the break and that’s the social bit. I think I didn’t realise that the actual rehearsal, the singing itself as a social act. I don’t think I really realised that before and how important it is for the people who are in a group, an established group that they come every week, or indeed even a scratch thing where we’ve all come together on one Saturday to do a ‘come and sing day’ or something like that, that actually, the act of people looking at each other, singing, listening to each other, breathing together, it’s not just a work of art, it’s a social thing. And I think we’ve all hugely missed that, but also learned that that is what’s been missing. So it was amazing to see so many people all together every Sunday and every Thursday all the way through the autumn. The rehearsals weren’t better than the concert, but for me, they were the project. And it was amazing to have that sense of that active togetherness that singing can be.

AP: Craig, I wonder whether we could talk about Gateshead Older People’s Assembly. It’s different, but I’m sure there are many, many similarities of context in the work that you do. Perhaps, first of all, you might be willing to just say a little bit about what Gateshead Older People’s Assembly is.

Craig Bankhead: Sure, yeah. So, the organisation is very much based around supporting people to maintain their independence. All beneficiaries tend to be people aged 50 to 75, and it’s that gap, it’s that age at which people tend not to have things specifically directed towards them or indeed provided for them by the community. There’s a lot of stuff for older people, if you will, and indeed people under 50, but it’s a forgotten generation, if you will, a forgotten age range. What we do is we have a whole range of activities, projects aimed at supporting people, maintaining health, well-being, that’s physical and mental health. There’s a lot of exercise classes, a lot of social groups, a lot of learning opportunities. But of course, we do have a lot of musical activity as well in there because of course, it’s good both physically, mentally and just holistically as a fantastic thing. Everyone’s always smiling when they take part in our musical activity. We have a singing group. In conjunction with the Sage, we have a Samba drumming group as well, the ukulele group too. We have a relatively unique, if such a thing is possible, project called Never Too Old to Rock as well, which is a community-based collection of people who come together to listen to, play and enjoy rock music together.

AP: I wonder whether that might be a good point to hear another clip of music. I think you’ve brought something quite different from the Verdi, Craig. So here is 20th Century Boy.

Music exert from Never Too Old to Rock

AP: Thank you. Fantastic. Craig, could you tell us about that project, please?

CB: Absolutely, yeah. It’s a project that was born probably a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, just before the first lockdown, it began in January 2020, so it only ran for two months in its initial period. But it was an idea that I had based on conversations with our beneficiaries who said they would like that kind of thing. I also play in a pub rock band myself and would frequently be standing there on stage looking out into the audience and seeing a lot of men in that age group I’d mentioned earlier on, 50 to 75, standing there, maybe at the bar on their own, playing their guitar, air drums, whatever, really wanting to get involved but perhaps didn’t have the opportunity to do so, or the means or the knowledge as to where to get involved with something like that. We launched this project and essentially it was just basically engaging with a bass player, a drummer and a guitarist, instructors in each of those things and getting those people to provide instruction at our centre here in Gateshead and advertise it widely throughout all the GP practices, throughout all the primary care navigators across all of Gateshead.

And it was really good because in week one about thirty people turned up, which was excellent. And the premise was that people could come along and either learn how to play bass, drums or guitar. They could be complete beginners. They could be people who maybe used to do it about 30 or 40 years ago, but no longer do. People who may have wished to have done it as a younger person but didn’t have the means to be able to buy a guitar or a drum kit or anything like that. And it really ended up being that complete mixture of people, much to the disappointment of the guitar instructor who had to have a very differentiated approach for some people who didn’t know which way to hold it, to some people who were jamming along to deep purple riffs while he was trying to talk. But eventually that settled down and it’s been really good. Like I said, we’ve got a complete mix of people. And what we heard there, of course, was a group of people together. I think there was about eight people on stage then.

We heard the drumming intro there. That’s a guy called Joe who’s never played drums before in his life until July this year. He came along, he learned how to play drums here and has got the confidence just to get up and can do this and has now subsequently been able to just jam along. This week just gone, Monday nights, we had a Christmas jam busk, if you will. And all of the musicians were just getting up, just having a bit of a go. And this guy, Joe, who’d never played drums before in his life, he was 60 not long ago, he got up and played and was able to shuffle along to various guitarists and bassists who were coming up and sitting down as they were going. And there’s a sense of wonderful, wonderful camaraderie amongst the group as well. Everyone’s applauding one another. Everyone’s supporting one another. It was something that I wish I’d done years ago, to be honest, but it’s something that we’re doing now and hopefully we’ll be able to continue long into the future.

AP: One of the things that I remember from visits to the Gateshead Older People’s Assembly, which sits on the top of a hill, you can see the world from Gateshead Older People’s assembly, can’t you? As you walk towards the centre, there’s this extraordinary sounds and sense of activity coming out of it, which just literally draws you in, which is extraordinary. Now, I’m interested in the question of evidence around how this makes us feel. Holly, you’re a scientist, you work in science, and you’ve talked from a personal perspective there at the top about how you felt about this project and that you were involved in and what it means to you. I wondered what you see in evidence about how making music makes you feel. I suppose, do you think it’s important that we see scientific evidence about this?

HP: I think so, yeah. I don’t know any studies off the top of my head, but it’s definitely signs to show that it helps if you’re feeling down to pick up an instrument or sing or whatever.

AP: Craig, you’ve got a view on this?

CB: Yeah. I was just talking to one of our singing groups on Tuesday actually, who I think hit the nail on the head with regards to that. It was difficult to quantify and it’s difficult to quantify in terms that are accessible, I guess. But essentially this person said to me that they didn’t feel particularly well that morning. They felt that they could have just stayed in the house. But they said that every time they come along to the singing group, they always leave with a smile on their face. And that was the motivation to get out of the house. It was a particularly cold, rather damp day. And coming along to that, making that big difference. And it really is a noticeable difference. They are smiling at the end. It’s a group of around twenty-five to thirty, mainly women, but there’s about four men in there as well. And it’s just contemporary tunes, which we sing along with the backing tracks. It’s essentially like one of these crowd karaoke type things you see in a lot of venues nowadays in one sense. But it just it means a lot. And again, coming back to Tim’s point from earlier on, just that sense of doing it together is as good for one’s wellbeing as it is for the individual. It’s as good as a group as it is for the individual.

AP: For the individual. Yeah. Thank you, Craig. Tim?

TB: You were talking about science a moment ago, and I am about as far away from a scientist as you can get. But I have a genuine belief, core belief that we are hard wired to need to do music in some way. And I just feel that music and singing has been with us since prehistoric times. And I feel that this has been something that we’ve always done as a species. And I feel that you know that when you walk into the room and you sing with people, or you play drums with people, or you play guitar with people, and you make music together, you go to a different place. You go somewhere in your mind that you don’t go when you’re not making music. And it can actually reset you from whatever you were thinking about before. And I think there’s such a power to it. And it’s almost not like any other art in that respect. And it genuinely I think it genuinely puts everybody in that room into a different space, but it puts them all into the same space as each other.

AP: And for me, one of the things that’s incredibly powerful about it is that sense of fitting in and shared purpose. But it’s possible to do that with a really diverse range of people and bring people together who have very different perspectives around a singularity of purpose, which is really powerful. I suppose just thinking about how we get into music. We’ve, at Sage Gateshead, done a lot of conversations over the past 18 months or so with a really wide range of people, and two things have resonated really loudly in what people have been talking about, and both of them are coming through in this conversation. The first big message that we hear from people is that music is linked to their wellbeing and how they feel. People say that loud and clear. The other thing that people talk about when they’re talking to us about their experience of music is how often a connection with it and an interest in it sparks very early on in life and is associated with family and with traditions and with their culture. Also, later on in life, it becomes really deeply connected with who they are socially and how they learn and develop.

I’d like to just introduce a final clip. This is a clip from a project which, Tim, you were involved in with the brilliant organisation, Streetwise Opera. The project was called Tell Me the Truth About Love. I’ve got a quote here about Streetwise Opera that I want to just read before we hear the clip: ‘Streetwise Opera performers reinvent themselves as creators who make the world more beautiful and have the power to bring audiences to their feet.’ I think anybody that has experienced the Streetwise project would wholeheartedly agree with that. The organisation works with people who are homeless and who’ve experienced homelessness through opera. It’s an example of music as a hugely powerful way of connecting people very broadly. Perhaps let’s hear the brief clip from Tell Me the Truth About Love.

Music exert from Streetwise Opera

AP: Again, that’s a project which links musicians to a range of different experiences together and was led by Tim. Tim, is there anything you want to say about that project?

TB: Yeah, I haven’t listened to any of that. I’m just slightly a mess on the floor because that’s filled me with such joy to hear that. It was such a wonderful project. I think there’s something that stayed with me from that project that’s to do with being bothered about. And I think that my experience of talking to people who are or have been homeless, that it’s such a huge issue to feel whether society is bothered with you or not. And at times in those people’s lives, the thing that unites them is that at some point is they’ve felt that nobody cares and there’s a point in their life when nobody is bothering with them. The thing about Streetwise Opera and the thing I remember from that project was the pivotal moment where we worked with the musicians for the first time, with the Royal Northern Sinfonia players. That moment where we heard the orchestra sound playing the music that we’d been singing with piano for so long was a really incredible moment. And you just felt in the room that there was this, wow, there’s this sound being made.

And looking at these people, the professional musicians, the Sinfonia players and thinking, ‘this is what these people do’. Their job is to make incredibly beautiful sounds with their instrument. It was the feeling that the sense that these players are on our team. And they’re part of us. They are playing our music. They are accompanying us. And it was a two way as well. I could tell the players were hugely emotional about that project and they were so moved by the realness and the rawness of the performances being given by the Streetwise performers and the story that they were telling and like the quote that you read, how they bring audiences to their feet, but they connect in a way that I think is slightly unparalleled. And the hunger to perform, the hunger to have that, to express themselves through singing, through dancing, through stage craft. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that quite that same intense energy. And so, for me, that project, that confluence of all of those things coming together was really amazing, really incredible.

AP: Yeah. And as you say, everybody takes something, everybody develops through it, don’t they? Thank you, Tim. Before we wrap up, I’d like to just come back to the top of the hill and to Gateshead Older People’s Assembly and this question of learning in later life. Craig, we often hear that it’s easier to learn an instrument in your younger years, easier to learn anything in your younger years. I wondered whether you have any thoughts on the experience of learning, music or otherwise in later life and what you see in that, in your work?

CB: Yeah, sure. Well, certainly with our Well Tuned project that we ran in conjunction with Sage Gateshead, we have Samba drumming, and we have ukulele opportunities as well, which has been taken up by a lot of members of our beneficiaries. And yeah, it’s interesting. I think it’s there. The rhythm is there, certainly for the Samba drumming. It’s not something that leaves someone. It’s something that obviously it is more difficult to learn things in later life because, but we need to. I think that’s the important part. I think it’s to be able to continue to learn things. And that has been proven so many times over by so many studies to stave off various forms of dementia and just in keeping more active and just being able to just learn a chord on a ukulele. Yeah, it’s got four strings, but looking at those chord charts and then going from E to D to A and just creating those, again, just getting those juices flowing, if you will, within the brain and having people doing those things is great for maintaining health and wellbeing as long as possible.

AP: Thanks, Craig. I’m going to give final word to Holly if I may. Holly, I wonder, following the People’s Requiem, what are your next plans? Have you got a next project that you’re going to be involved in?

HMS: I’ve actually applied to join the Chorus. So Tim will have to be auditioning me. So hopefully I get in. And then just finding another orchestra to play in. I just want to carry on music.

AP: Brilliant, so the future is clear. We cross our fingers for your audition.

HMS: Thank you.

AP: Holly, Craig, and Tim, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your experience in a really rich conversation about this vast, vast topic. Thank you. We hope that you’ve enjoyed listening and you’ll look out for other podcasts in the series. We’ll leave you as we began with another extract from the People’s Requiem, Verdi’s masterpiece, performed at Sage Gateshead by over three hundred musicians from the North East of England.