Music for Life: Out of the Ordinary

Music for Life musician Hannah Opstad tells us about Out of the Ordinary – a new online project led in partnership with the Royal Academy of Music, Wigmore Hall and individuals from UCL’s Rare Dementia Support groups:

Back in early December, it was looking increasingly likely that another national lockdown was coming our way when I put the dates in my diary for Out of the Ordinary. I was absolutely thrilled to have the project to look forward to, but of course was apprehensive about all the challenges that an online project might bring. We were going to have to work in different ways and be willing to try new things and take risks. In the weeks leading up to the project, I reminded myself that this feeling of vulnerability is something that is always present when working with Music for Life - we can never predict what will happen - and that these nerves were just a new variation of that feeling.

It is always a privilege to work with Caroline Welsh (who was leading, and whose ideas inspire Out of the Ordinary) but I will never forget the immense care, nourishment and guidance she gave to all involved on this project. We were lucky to work with the most fantastic team of students and Fellows from the Royal Academy of Music and 12 brilliant individuals recruited through UCL’s Rare Dementia Support groups. Throughout the project, I was struck and utterly inspired by how willing everyone was to try something new and explore music making in a unique way.

"It has helped me through a difficult time, personally, enabling me to forget my troubles when listening to the enthusiasm and improvisation of the players."


"I felt connected, engaged and supported. I felt that I was being seen as myself, not defined by my diagnosis"


Over 6 weeks, we journeyed around the colour wheel and took inspiration from the group’s responses to it. We all encouraged one another to send in photographs, artwork, words and stories to use as starting points in our sessions. Music would be created inspired by our discussions and was a truly collaborative effort. For example, inspired by a slideshow of photos and artwork sent in, and the discussions and stories that flowed from these, we created poems together. Then the group would direct the musicians to give the poem a musical interpretation.

"I always looked forward to Thursdays, because I knew that I always enjoyed the session, and to hear musicians compose a piece of music from someone just saying something or talking about something that they had done was total enjoyment."


"[This] is the most exciting, creative, inclusive inspirational of all the Zooms I have been involved in during our various confinements in the last year…[the team] who run these sessions are really talented, caring and so good at allowing all the participants to show their creativity and shine!! Thank you all so very much."


There are many challenges working in this way online but one of the biggest is not being able to play together at the same time due to the lag/delay. In real life, the musician team would usually begin and end each session by improvising together around the same short motif. Each time this music is different and unique but with a strong sense of familiarity. To create a piece together that had a feeling of spontaneity and playfulness, we made a piece which we added layers to between each session, beginning with just flute and trumpet. A recording of this was played at the start and end of each session and, as the weeks went by, other voices were added; French horn, voice, clarinet, cello, harp. Even though I’d added my layer right at the start, hearing another instrument playing with me some weeks later gave me a strong feeling of connection with my colleagues. I was surprised how well this worked and, just as in real life, you could see the whole group settle into the session when the piece was being played.

I would never have thought it possible to feel so strongly connected with a group of people who I’ve only met online. Let alone for a group of musicians who’ve never all met in person to work together so successfully. I think it is credit to each and every person in the sessions for bringing an open mind, a welcoming heart and a willingness and determination to make something really special for each of us there. Personally, it has been a huge learning curve, challenging what I thought was and wasn’t possible. And to feel so strongly connected with other people during a time of isolation? Well, I hadn’t realised quite how much I needed that. This project was a timely reminder that this work is for us all; people living with dementia and their families, carers and the musicians. That’s what makes it so special.

"This has been the most helpful intervention I have had since my diagnosis. I think is because it was an opportunity to be with others who have similar diagnoses, but without these being the focus of the group. In the past I have sometimes found professional musicians intimidating, but this was certainly not the case here."