During the summer of 2021, Britten Pears Arts (BPA) redesigned and relaunched ‘Participate’ as part of the Community team’s Later Life programme. Our aims were to visit people in their own communities, to focus on those in later life, to offer weekly sessions free-of-charge, and to be immensely welcoming. Facilitator and violinist Caroline Clarke describes the journey of the Participate programme over the last year.

A person wearing glasses playing an instrument.

A Participate session in The Red House library

We hoped that visiting people in their own communities would put them at ease, especially after lockdowns which fostered loneliness and sapped confidence in so many of us. We also knew that focusing on those in ‘later life’ meant that many participants would be living with various Iong-term health conditions, including dementia and Parkinson’s Disease, or that they would be carers or companions of those who do. So whilst our sessions were open to those without health conditions, we tailored them to be as inclusive as possible to anyone who wanted to come along.

After some research and connecting with local partners, we decided that Saxmundham and Leiston would be our two initial hubs to deliver the programme. Both are within a 5 mile radius of Snape Maltings and have a high-risk of loneliness (according to AgeUK).

To begin with, people were understandably nervous about venturing out and socialising after having been urged to do the complete opposite during lockdowns. But with perseverance, word of mouth, and most importantly, strong partnerships with local social prescribers, community organisations and neighbourhood schemes, our numbers started to increase week after week. The use of community transport in Leiston to collect participants from their homes and return them safely is also an essential part of the programme, without which lots of participants would be unable to attend, Indeed, as the weeks progressed, I’m sure the party started on the bus and continued until participants returned home. On average 10 people joined per week in Saxmundham, and 16 in Leiston.

So, what was the new Participate programme like? Two musicians lead each session, supported by a workshop assistant and a member of the BPA team. Each musician in the team brought different skills, as well as new and varied ideas. There’s never a dull moment.

People sat down playing instruments.

A participate session in The Red House library

During preparations, musicians draw inspiration from various heritage items at the Red House, Aldeburgh to craft the central theme of each session. For example, together with my fellow musician, I shaped one of the sessions around a bird field-guide once owned by Benjamin Britten. Our music-making in that session involved musically improvising to bird-like movement, creating a percussion and chime piece in the manner of chirping birds, singing together like bird chorus, and even thinking how our names would sound in bird song. All of this from a bird-book.

We call our Participate sessions ‘music workshops’, so you might imagine that music was our central theme. However, whilst we did make a lot of music, I am in no doubt that the most crucial elements were social – conversation and companionship. Each group has become a creative team. They support and care for one another – and for musicians and staff, too. They share news, both good and bad. They reminisce, and they laugh. They made a gentle harmony together – equality, trust, and respect between all in the circle.

Music was the catalyst, friendship the outcome. Gently – and with musical support – our sessions have created bonds. From session to session, participants grew into their roles and gained in confidence. They even started sitting in their own particular seats each week. By sitting in the same place, I suspect they gained reassurance and security, and came to know their neighbours.

A photograph of two people looking at the camera smiling.

John and Caroline at The Red House Garden Party

In my sessions, I sat next to John. John is a proper, dapper and softly-spoken gentleman, but I coaxed him to sing loudly. He is also a kind-hearted widower with whom I shared memories, and from whom I learnt as much as taught. We formed a connection through music.

Not only did John attend the weekly sessions, but along with other participants he also signed up to additional opportunities – a Christmas tea-dance at Snape Maltings, a visit to The Red House, a concert in the Aldeburgh Festival, and a summer Garden Party to celebrate our year together.

At the Garden Party, which took place at The Red House, all participants from Saxmundham and Leiston joined together, and we were also joined by other community groups outside the Participate programme, including Care Homes, befriending services. A live dance-band provided the music, and an afternoon tea fuelled the conversations and the reminiscences.

John looked as smart as ever at the garden-party, even in the summer heat. Though I was playing in the band, I made sure to spend a little bit of time with him. I also watched as he strolled alone through the gardens – taking in all that was around him. He seemed happy, comfortable, and confident.

One of the participants was heard saying, ‘My diary has never been so full’. And that is what Participate is all about. Participating not merely in a music session, but in a creative community. My friendship with John will no doubt continue next year, as will other connections between all who took part. Participate this year was full of musical achievements, but at the heart of those sessions were special connections and warm friendships.

Participate will restart in September and new attendees would be very, very welcome – please do join us.

Find out more about Participate here.

With thanks to – Alfie Carpenter, Kimberley Moore, Rachel Cohen, Charly Jolly, Sian Dicker, Rob Gildon, Saki Kato, Workshop Assistants and BPA Community Team.