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Songwriting project for people nearing end of life selected for Big Lottery Fund competition

Author: Leila Hawkins
13 April 2018

A songwriter’s project that gives people nearing the end of their lives the opportunity to create and record their own song has been selected for the Big Lottery Fund’s People’s Projects run with ITV. Here founder Ben Buddy Slack shares his story.

The Swan Song Project began at Bradford’s Marie Curie Hospice in May last year. Ben writes original songs with the patients, then records them and puts them onto CD for them to keep. He was inspired to start the project after the death of this grandmother. He explained:

“My uncle and I sang to my grandma right near the end of her life and she kind of lit up and started tapping her fingers. It is a really beautiful and powerful memory for me, and a year or two after I was thinking how nice it would be to have a recording of her singing with us, to hear her voice doing something she enjoyed. I then thought how powerful it would be to have a recording of a song she had written herself. I have been obsessed with songwriting for a long time and have been doing community songwriting work for many years, so thought it would be a good idea to offer it to people nearing the end of their lives. I was amazed.”

Participants have said how enjoyable and therapeutic the process is and how deeply meaningful their songs are to them and their families. Some have used the opportunity to express their emotions to their loved ones in a way which could have been difficult in normal conversation, others have told their story or recorded a message they want to leave behind. “People have been responding so well to it, writing the most beautiful things and seeing the real therapeutic benefits of the process” Ben said.

The project was initially funded by the National Lottery’s Awards for All and the Sovereign Health Care Trust. Following this it was chosen to apply for the Big Lottery Fund’s Peoples Project - it is now down to the final five for ITV’s Calendar North region, and is in with a chance of winning £50,000 worth of funding. This would enable the project to expand across the region, being offered to other hospices and organisations in the Leeds and Bradford area. Ben explained:

“I have several rather large aims for the project and they seem to grow all the time. I want to make it available to as many people as possible, over time setting it up with more and more hospices and other organisations dealing with end of life and bereavement. I see how meaningful it is for people to write and record these songs and the comfort they can provide their families, hopefully for years to come. Anyone can write a song with the right support and a song lives forever, so I think everyone should be given the opportunity.”

“I was amazed it was not a service already provided when I had the idea to be honest. I hope the songs promote discussion of what it is like to face end of life and maybe change people’s opinions and reduce some of their fears. I also hope it showcases that it is never too late to try something new, express yourself and create a beautiful piece of art. I have met so many people over the years who say they are too old to learn music now or they are not creative and cannot do it, and I just do not believe them. Everyone has such a unique experience and way of expressing it, and there are great benefits personally for them and for the people who get to listen to it and learn from their experience.”

He shared one of the stories that made a big impression on him:

“A man I worked with recently had been in the hospice for several months and had not really engaged with any of the activities offered to him. He was only 42 with a young daughter, I cannot imagine what it must have been like for him. One of the Occupational Therapists introduced me to him as he used to play guitar himself, and we immediately hit it off. I had my guitar with me and he had a play, he was very good but would find it frustrating as he had not played in so long and his strength and energy were obviously depleted.”

“He liked the idea of writing a song for his daughter and had a piece of music he used to play a lot. He asked if we could write it, so  I would go and see him regularly and we would chip away at his song, depending on how well he was we would sometimes play a bit of guitar together, sometimes we would write some lyrics and sometimes we would just hang out and have some laughs. I brought a guitar into the hospice that I could leave for him to practice on and then he got his wife to bring his from home (us guitar players always prefer our own).”

“It took me quite a while to learn the guitar part he had as it was a tricky one, but I got there, we got the song finished and recorded and it is just stunning. He chose to keep the song private for his family, primarily his daughter. We finished it a week before he died and I got to meet his family including his daughter who I had heard so much about. It was a real pleasure to work with him and I think that song will mean so much to his daughter for the rest of her life.I got this email from his father just a few days ago, which he gave me permission to share:

"Hi Ben, just wanted to thank you for being around at Marie Curie hospice, my son passed away on the 22 March, what was going on in his head is unimaginable. I know he enjoyed writing that song which must have provided some relief for him, a break from the discomfort and stress perhaps. So a sincere thank you from myself and his family. I hope you can keep up this good work."”

A short video about each of the five finalist projects will be broadcast on ITV’s Calender news from next week.  People can vote for the project Peoples Project website from April 16 - 30.

The Swan Song Project is also open to members of the community facing end of life and bereavement who do not use a hospice. Anyone who thinks they may benefit can email and arrange a session. 

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