All pics by Simon Hutchens

The special sharing performance by Oxford’s wonderful Turtle Song Project was almost complete when coronavirus struck.

Undeterred, the organisers of the event for people with early-to-mid-stage dementia and their carers, have taken to Zoom.

“We’d done our eight weeks of work, created the songs and everything, and we were all ready to do our sharing performance in March, then we went into lockdown and everything came to an abrupt halt,” says workshop leader Carolyn von Stumm.

“It was a really horrible feeling, because everyone had worked so hard and was so excited to be able to share the results with friends and family, and then we couldn’t even finish properly because we couldn’t hug anyone or say a proper goodbye.

“We didn’t want to abandon people, so we’ve taken to the internet.”

Turtle Song is one of the projects run by Turtle Key Arts, in collaboration with English Touring Opera and the Royal College of Music. It is a registered charity, funded by donations and money from trusts, foundations, etc.

The local group of mainly young people with dementia have been benefitting from a special project that sees them writing, rehearsing and performing their own song cycle alongside professional and student musicians. 

Participants were able to reconnect through Zoom, which recreated the Turtle Song workshops as closely as possible with warm-ups, singing, dancing and chatting. 

“We wanted to make sure everyone knew how to work their way around the technology, and it all worked surprisingly smoothly,” says Carolyn. “This is a real silver lining, because learning to master something like Zoom is going to really add to people’s confidence and independence.”

“It was so nice to see everyone dancing around their living rooms, on their own or with a partner. Movement and dance is an important part of the Turtle Song project, and now with people confined to home it’s particularly important to keep moving and exercising in a fun way.

“There’s so much anxiety around, even more so if you’re living with dementia because it can be confusing at the best of times.”

The sharing performance, originally scheduled to take place at Somerville College, was also done via Zoom, with the song cycle interwoven with people talking about their Turtle Project experiences and one participant reading out one of his own poems.

This performance is now online for all to enjoy, at https://vimeo.com/413669752.

Meanwhile, Carolyn is determined to stay connected with participants, and is delighted to have recently received an Arts Council grant to create a ten-week online project. 

“Music is such a game changer and such a life line,” she says. “Science has proven that for people living with dementia, music helps relieve the anxiety, the depression and the stress. 

“The creativity of what we do is also very important, and that is why we felt it was important not to abandon them. They’ve put so much into the creativity and learning the songs, we felt we couldn’t just leave it hanging.

“It’s all about exercising the body and the mind, and also it’s familiar to them because it’s work they’ve already done. So we’re keeping going for the continuity and the familiarity, which is so needed at the moment. It also means they can stay connected even if they can’t get out, so it’s going to help them in that way as well.”

For more information about the Turtle Song Project, visit www.turtlekeyarts.org.uk/turtle-song

NICOLA LISLE

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