I am a professional musician, and I have spent a lot of my formative years touring around the world. When I came back to London in 2007, I wanted to put something back into the community. Still passionate about the power of music, I took a small group of musicians to St Christopher’s Hospice in South East London and hosted a singalong session.
I was amazed at how animatedly the extremely fragile and ageing community responded to our singing. They really came alive. It inspired me to explore funding opportunities and in 2007, Shapeshifter Productions was formed as a not for profit performing arts organisation based in Waltham Forest.
Since then, we have gone from strength to strength, developing new partnerships and new projects and reaching new audiences across the country. In 2011, we gained charitable status and our signature singalong project, The Smiling Sessions was voted in the top three of the National Lottery Awards. We have since been delivering the face to face Smiling Sessions, going into people’s communal living rooms, sheltered housing and care homes.
When we were delivering face to face sessions, we would go into the communal room of a care home or sheltered housing scheme and the staff would usually have everybody congregate for when we arrived. Depending on the severity of residents’ physical and mental health conditions, we delivered an hour 15 minutes to 2 x 45 minutes sessions – with a very important tea break!
We have also launched an online app, through which allows the care homes to download or stream a video song weekly. We have created a YouTube channel as well. A free virtual video jukebox of famous and uplifting songs, the Smiling Sessions are released every week and performed by our team of professional musicians and feature a celebrity guest singer and sometimes care home staff and residents.
I am delighted that our weekly digital singing sessions are now reaching thousands of people throughout the UK, supporting their wellbeing during this very difficult time.
We are constantly researching, through feedback forms and word of mouth, how our projects are received to ensure we keep up-to-date and relevant. We are as committed as ever to raising awareness of the impact singing has on health and wellbeing and to highlight the terrible isolation many people are still experiencing.
One of my most memorable experiences has been our special project for people with mental health issues. We went to this specially built apartment block as part of the Olympic Village in Stratford, for people of all ages with mental health issues to live in independent accommodation. The age group was from 18 to over 80.
One of the residents came in a wheelchair. It transpired that he had had an accident at work which left him paralysed on one side of his body. Before that he played the guitar. But after the accident he said, “I can’t even hold my cigarette now”. He started to come and watch our sessions as he loved what we did. Two of the musicians volunteering with us started encouraging him to help put his hands around the guitar neck. Then, with the permission of his carers, our musician Neil Herd started staying behind to give this gentleman a one to one lesson. After a few months, he now has three or four guitars and he has built his own recording studio in his apartment.
And it is because of stories like this that we want to continue our goal of engaging communities in activities that enhance confidence and self-esteem.
If you would like to know more about The Smiling Sessions, contact Violaine Bailleul on [email protected]
Alison Jones is the Artistic Director, Shapeshifter Productions.
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