"We should've had the mics rolling!"
Updated: Mar 5
Musicians: Alice Zawadzki (violin and voice) and Ben Hazleton (double bass)
It was a particularly cold snap at the end of December when I arrived at Bridgeside Lodge with double bassist Ben Hazleton. Whilst waiting for our Covid test results, (we’re now having lateral flow tests on arrival on every visit to BSL) we decided to put our time to good use by playing some jigs and reels outside in the garden, which, as well as being in earshot of many of the residents' bedrooms, looks out onto the lock and the canal walkways surrounding it.
Upon enquiring what he had for us today, he replied: blues, jazz, festive classics, a smouldering Tunisian dance and some Elizabethan songs.
Excellent, I thought, he's as weird as me.
We practiced a bunch of joyful uplifting jigs and reels - Over the Ocean, Paddy's Leather Britches, Soldier's Joy, and many more, with the water and stonework merrily bouncing the sound of our instruments far and wide.
There were waves and smiling faces from across the canal from the occasional passerby.
I had known of Ben for several years on the live music scene but had never had the pleasure of playing with him, and as I suspected, I was in for a treat. He is soulful, intuitive, playful, and makes a glorious, booming, velvet sound on his bass.
By the time the cold had rendered our fingers completely immovable, it was mercifully time to stop and go inside to get our results, happily negative. Leyla, perhaps the loveliest soul in the world, and one of the core members of staff, helped us with recording our results, and off we went, with the first stop being to resident EJ. She is one of the most kind and gentle people I have ever met and I've become increasingly fond of her and grateful for her sweet engagement of the music we bring to her each time. She knew the words and melodies to some of these niche Elizabethan songs, and we couldn't hide our happy astonishment as she sang along with us. The ravages of dementia or simply physical old age can make a person appear to fade, but moments like that remind me that every single one of the residents has a story to tell and a rich life story, full of loves, loss, intrigue, interests, and passions. EJ had tears in her eyes as we sang together, and it was a moment of connection that I will treasure.
Leyla looks after EJ very intensively as she is liable to fall at any time. Leyla has been learning piano with Thom, a core Spitz staff member, and it made me smile to see that the electric keyboard she learns on is still in EJ's room. This is because EJ has a good ear and is able to give Leyla feedback about her playing. Not only is Leyla learning a skill that she has always wanted to explore, and developing an outlet of expression after an incredibly distressing year, but now some of the long hours of care within the same four walls can be happily passed in a creative way. Knowing that music is helping the smooth running of the home and the wellbeing of both staff and carers, gives us renewed energy and resolve.
Next we visited JC in his room, where he is currently bedbound. He is a delightful character. Inquisitive and with such glittering friendly eyes that if you allow yourself to stop for a moment, you could almost be looking at the face of a smiling teenager. He went to great pains to ask us if we had managed to have a semblance of a Christmas under the circumstances. I felt deeply grateful in that moment to be in the company of such a luminous and generous spirit. His knowing gaze makes you feel like there is nothing he cannot comprehend, nothing he hasn't seen. I often wonder what he has experienced in his 81 years. He has an acoustic guitar that he loves to strum along with us. Ben showed incredible skill and creativity by choosing to play in keys that would allow JC's open strings to sound consonant with whatever we were doing, as his fingers can no longer hold the frets. He sang along to a blues which we played, 'Hold It Right There', that I learned from my first musical mentor, the New Orleans jazz singer Lillian Bouttè. I always think of her when I sing this; of how she would include everyone in the room when she performed, how her love and joy was palpable and warm and real. Seeing JC smile as he sang made me feel like her spirit was there with us, united somehow by the joy of this blues tune. As we came to a close, he remarked -
"We should've had the mics rolling!"
- Resident JC, BSL
Next we saw K who is often sitting in the armchairs by the lift. We sang an Irish ballad and he nodded along, smiling. He is always understated, a dignified and polite man, and always shows us appreciation. M made it very clear that she did NOT want to listen to any music. No performer likes to hear that of course but I'm genuinely glad that she voiced her desires and demonstrated her agency of acting upon them by getting up and leaving - so fair play, and more power to her! I hope that one day I will reach her age and have a similar attitude of just saying no to things I don't like 🙂 . Gradually, more people came into the space, and although we were strictly socially distanced, the party atmosphere was real, and Ben and I started to ramp up the tunes. J joined us, always drumming along with his hands on the chair or clapping, his enthusiasm is emboldening! M rather generously told me that I'm 'as good as Doris Day', which although I dispute, I will put 'in the bank' for the next time I feel low. (Thanks M xx) She talked about how much she enjoyed going to see shows in the West End as a treat when she was younger, and during our conversation her eyes lit up as she recalled the thrill of the music she loves.
H joined us - he is an amputee with only one leg after an accident many years ago. As Ben continued to build up the bassline and got into a deep and uplifting groove, H wheeled himself over towards us and called out over the music to say that if he had two legs he would've been up dancing too. G joined us, another resident who I've become incredibly fond of. Her eyes are sparkling and mischievous, and although her speech and mobility is now heavily impeded, her essential voice is still huge, lustrous, and resonant. She sings along with everything, sings from her very bones, and when the music begins, she becomes animated, moving her hands like a flamenco dancer. Ben and I saw how she was expressing herself this way, and somehow, without discussing it, arrived at a point where she was conducting us. Time seemed to stop in those minutes where she was able to control the sounds we made with her gestures, and the communication between the three of us was as clear as day. In that moment, it felt that we were her 'voice'... that she was able to speak through us. It's hard to explain what events like this feel like, but it is something to do with humanity. It lives in them. All of us - participants and onlookers, are humanized by the experience.
Shortly after, two of the amazing care staff joined us in dancing to Irish jigs - they held the hands of the residents and supported them physically so that they could dance. The energy of the staff at Bridgeside Lodge is humbling to witness - the way they dive into all aspects of the wellbeing of the residents is an inspiration. The teamwork we are building feels really good. We then finished with a joyous and inappropriately bombastic version of Auld Lang Syne, which everyone sung along to. Hilariously, no one knew all the words, embarrassingly including me and Ben, so we just la la la'd the bits we didn't know with gusto and laughed. Not a bad motto for aspects of these times we find ourselves in methinks. Thank you so much, Bridgeside Lodge and The Spitz.