It opens with a greeting that’s also an invitation, drawing people into the circle around which all – participant and carer, musician and therapist – have been seated. “Hello, everyone!”

Some are slow to respond, while the flames of others flicker only briefly, marking the tempo of the keyboard’s melody with whatever instrument they have to hand before retreating into themselves once more. Still, there’s a charge in such moments, something akin to the Pentecostal. “Here I am,” they say, whether with a smile of recognition or a shake of a tambourine. “There you are!’ the circle answers, in wonder and welcome. And so it continues.

It’s a moving introduction to the Music Café hosted in the splendour and serenity of the restored Gorton Monastery, a weekly session for people living with dementia and their carers run by Manchester Camerata.

Music Cafe at Gorton Monastery. Copyright: Duncan Elliott.

Before and after the circle, I’m afforded the opportunity to talk with some of its constituents including Beryl, a relative newcomer of only a few weeks, here today with her daughters, Sonia and Irenka, as well as Ryan, one of the musicians from the Camerata, and Carolyn, a volunteer.

As it turns out, those instances in which the participants flame into being, however fleetingly, reconnecting the frayed wires between the past and the present, are no accident, but part of the programme’s evidence-based design. The Café’s aim is, by using what Ryan and Carolyn identify as “the language of music”, to bring the participants from a state of being “disorientated” into the present moment. More than this, though, it’s a space in which carers can meet others who know first-hand the emotional toll of witnessing a loved one lose fragments of themselves to bewilderment.

While all see the circle from the vantage point of their own particular role, it’s clear that there’s a commonality of experience. Indeed, so deep does this run that certain words reverberate, their chimes peeling from person to person. “Joy” is one. “Friendship” is another. Certainly, there’s a strong feeling that the relationships that develop, in the serve and return of the interactions between musician and participant, are reciprocal. Carolyn puts into her own words something that Ryan, too, articulates: “It’s not been all a giving thing. I’ve received so much more.” Striking the same chord, both go on to say, in almost the same phrase (although this time the actual quote is from Ryan): “This is my favourite thing to do in music.”

Music Cafe at Gorton Monastery. Copyright: Duncan Elliott.

A third word is “magic”, and, at the root of this, beneath the empiricism on which the circle is organised, is an older wisdom. “It values every single person in this room. Every participant has a musical worth,” says Ryan. It’s not just that the participants are attending, but that they’re being attended to, unencumbered by words that might sometimes fail them. As Ryan elaborates: “The key thing is no matter what the participants want to offer, that’s enough. If they want to offer a gesture, if they want to offer a foot-tap, it’s okay. That’s enough.”

For Beryl, it’s more than enough. Since her first visit, she tells me that she’s been “whenever there’s been one on”. Her daughters confirm this: “It’s like when she knows she’s coming to this group, she’s dressed, bright as a button, ready to be leaving about 7 o’clock in the morning. It’s like when she’s sat here and she’s listening to the music, she gets the beat going.”

Music Cafe at Gorton Monastery. Copyright: Duncan Elliott.

At the heart of it, then, for Beryl, for her daughters, and for all the others in the circle is the sound of music, allowing, for one brief moment like sunshine through stained glass, the light of recognition to part the darker clouds that can fog the participants’ lives with the anger and fear of the lost.

“Hello, everyone!” it sings. “Hello, everyone!

By Desmond Bullen

Main image: Music Café at Gorton Monastery. Copyright: Duncan Elliott.


Music Cafés are at Gorton Monastery on Wednesday mornings. Arrive at 10.30am for 11am start. Free to attend for people living with dementia and their carers. For more information, click here.