Just a Sing-a-long…?

“a song…. is a boat… step into it and sail into music” – Clive Robbins

In discussion with other singing facilitators, I have heard the phrase “just a sing-a-long” enough times to make me think about what a sing-a-long is, and why it might be prefixed with the slightly disparaging ‘just’. A ‘sing-a-long’ implies that participants simply sing through well-known songs from sheets or books, or from memory, without additional harmonies, actions, percussion etc. If we really believe that singing itself is a positive and healthy activity, which as some research suggests can help boost the immune system and stimulate the happy chemicals in our brains, then why do we need all the extras?

I’ve come up with a few possible challenges that might face a singing facilitator in running ‘a sing-a-long’. I’m particularly thinking about singing with people living with dementia. Each challenge is followed by some suggestions and ideas that may help lift a singing session from enjoyable to exhilarating.

Challenge: I have observed from my practice that giving out the song-words either in a book or on a sheet of paper can stymie the bonding of a group, as instantly everyone looks downwards.

Suggestions: Alternate using song-sheets with songs from memory or nonsense songs. Many of the songs, such as some of those used by the Natural Voice Practitioner’s Network (e.g. Bella Mama), have just a couple of words so no song-sheet is necessary. One idea is to have participants share the song words – ensure the print is large – a volunteer or carer might help someone who is struggling to follow the words. A collection of songs can be a great talking point and kicks off conversation and reminiscence. Remember that some people living with dementia can no longer read and to try to do so is a frustrating experience. In contrast, a book of song words can be an excellent prop to support someone with dementia to know where they are and what they are meant to be doing during a singing group.

Challenge: Not everyone knows all the songs.

Suggestions: It’s important not to make assumptions about which material a particular person might know – or not know. Getting to know the musical tastes and preferences of participants when they first start coming will help guide you in choosing appropriate material – and it can be helpful to keep a list that participants can add to – don’t make promises though! Or, be prepared to do extensive simplifications/ arrangements. Along with singing familiar songs together, learning new songs together can be a great way of bonding as confidence and a sense of mastery emerge. Aim to build a group repertoire that includes well-known favourites (of your participants, not you) and shorter, satisfying rounds or chants – as well as a familiar welcoming song and goodbye song.

Challenge: Some of the songs are very short and only last one and a half minutes. 

Suggestions: Repetition. I’ll say it again…. Repetition is a really useful way to help guide people into a song or activity. The first time around might be difficult for some participants to join in, the second time around, they know it’s coming, and the third time around they can really enjoy it. This isn’t always the case, but it’s a useful idea to have in mind (a rule of thumb an OT colleague of mine swore by). There are lots of ways of adding variation to a repeated short song: by adding harmonies, actions or changes to the words, altering the dynamics (having a quiet verse) or modifying the speed.

An example from my own practice that worked particularly well was with the song Edelweiss. We would repeat the song 3-4 times – the first time, everyone would sing, the second time, the men would sing and the women would listen, and the third time, vice versa. The song would culminate in a combined repeat of the second half – i.e. from the line ‘blossom of snow….’ The act of listening – especially when working with couples – was invariably a magic moment – and the effect of the ‘swell’ of voices as men and women came together to sing at the end was a wonderful experience of being in music with others.

Challenge: I get positive feedback, but I notice some people aren’t joining in with the singing.

Suggestions: Firstly, well done for looking up and around at your group and observing how each person is, and for welcoming feedback. People participate in different ways. Newcomers who are unfamiliar with the format and the repertoire of your group might well be content to listen to start with. You may have people of varying levels of impairment, and again, for some a little tapping along in time might be all they are able or willing to do. Some questions to ask yourself and experiment with in the group: Are your instructions clear? Do you need to give verbal instructions or can you lead by example in the music? How fast are the songs? Would slowing down help at all? Can you help facilitate someone’s participation in different ways, for example, through movement by holding hands and swaying them to and fro (if this feels appropriate to the person), making eye contact and exchanging a smile – will the participant make eye contact? If a member of your group isn’t singing, what might be their experience? Are they included in the music? In the group? Sometimes a targeted use of percussion can give a member of the group a specific role. The swung cymbal ‘swish’ so common in jazz music can make all the difference to a bluesy song such as Summertime – give a cymbal and brushes to a group member who might need a particular role. Other sound effects might appeal to someone who isn’t up for singing, for example, a rain stick or thunder drum in Singing in the Rain – or claves for the all-important ‘tick tock’ in My Grandfather’s Clock.

Challenge: Should I use actions and nursery rhymes? Aren’t they a bit patronising? 

Suggestions: When in doubt about an exercise, song or action – ask yourself why am I using this? What is the response from your group? Did they suggest it? Do they / can they participate? Does the action song or tongue-twister relate to a legitimate aim? There are good reasons for using simple songs such as nursery rhymes when working with people living with dementia. Not least because they are often (in my experience) requested by participants, and they have a very simple, predictable structure that even those with severe cognitive impairment can often join in with, supporting their speech and language aims. It’s important too to know why you are encouraging actions – are they there as part of a physical warm-up to help with the singing? Are they included to assist in maintaining co-ordination and body awareness? Using the motivational nature of music to support gentle movement can be fun and effective at maintaining existing co-ordination and dexterity. And then ask how am I using this? Personally I find that being open about each activity by briefly explaining its purpose is the most respectful way of presenting an activity and inviting participation. A sense of fun and playfulness can go a long way too, and at every step observing your group and balancing out their needs for challenge and support.

An anecdote from a group I ran shows the unexpected ways a simple action can have an impact. We used the song Pick a Bale of Cotton with modified words as our welcome song. We would pass around a length of bunting to each person and name them in welcome, and then during the chorus the bunting would be lifted up. By the end of the song the bunting created a complete circle (more about circles another time). A family member commented that after a month or so of coming to the group, her relative had begun using her left arm again, whereas prior to coming to the group she increasingly relied upon her right arm, and her left arm had grown weaker. The family member attributed this improvement in physical health and co-ordination to the actions in the welcome song.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions and suggestions about facilitating successful singing groups. Where do you struggle? What works beautifully? What strategies have you used when faced with particularly challenging moments? Please use the comments box below to join the conversation.

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