Disappear Hear

A sell-out crowd gathers in No Alibis Bookstore for an evening of musical and literary entertainment in support of the Alzheimer’s Society

Singing, they say, is good for the soul. It lifts the spirits, stirs the memory and generally helps to improve our wellbeing. Because of this, it’s increasingly being used as a way to engage older people, particularly people living with dementia.

Singing for the Brain is one such group which uses the power of song for good, and is run by the Alzheimer’s Society. It takes place every Monday morning at the Ulster Hall in Belfast, bringing together a group of elderly people for a joyful singalong. The aim is to increase their wellbeing and confidence, as well as encouraging interaction and the expression of positive feelings and emotions in a relaxed environment.

It’s to support such activities, and Singing for the Brain in particular, that a sell-out crowd subsequently finds itself ensconced in No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast on a surprisingly warm July evening. Author Jan Carson – also outreach officer at the Ulster Hall – along with singer/songwriter Hannah McPhillimy and cellist Lizzy Donaghy, have organised a fundraising event, entitled Disappear Hear, with a difference.

Featuring a mixture of music inspired by Carson’s debut novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears, and readings from said novel, Disappear Hear is officially launching the EP of songs written by McPhillimy. It is mostly, however, raising awareness of the work of the Alzheimer’s Society, as well as funds to support that work, with all proceeds from the evening going straight to the charity.

Meanwhile, the audience is treated to some homemade goodies along with the performances. This includes a downloadable EP of the music, a bespoke Malcolm Orange tote bag and a new short story penned by Carson. Oh - and some delicious shortbread baked by Carson’s mum. And so, the evening begins.

'When you write a book, you have no idea, really, what it’s about,' says Carson. 'Then people tell you. My first novel is supposedly about lots of things. It’s actually about a little boy who starts to disappear. He lives in a nursing home in a retirement village, so all his friends are elderly people. They go on a quest to find him and stop him from disappearing.'

Set in a retirement village in Portland, Orego, Carson’s novel sees the residents form the People’s Committee for Remembering Songs, after music is banned by the village director. McPhillimy subsequently composed a collection of songs inspired by the story exploring the ageing process. Life, it seems, subsequently appeared to imitate art, when the Singing for the Brain group turned up at the Ulster Hall.

Seonaid Murray from the Alzheimer’s Society, explains: 'Back in February, I thought it would be great for our Singing for the Brain group to sing in the Ulster Hall. So I got in touch with Jan. Then she asked if I’d read her book. I didn’t know why she was saying that until I realised that Malcolm Orange Disappears mentions a group called the People’s Committee for Remembering Songs. I thought, this was fate, and since March, we’ve been in the Ulster Hall.'

Singing for the Brain, which happens every Monday morning, brings the group together for tea and coffee, followed by name games and warm-up activities. Then follows an hour of singing songs from memory and teaching each other songs says Murray.

'It takes on a whole life of its own,' she adds. 'We’re also making our own songbook at the moment. It’s a lot of fun. We encourage relaxation and communication with each other. It’s good for physical and mental health and wellbeing, and is a really worthwhile group. Well-known songs can evoke memories, and people with dementia who have communication difficulties may find that music helps to enhance their communication.'

The first song we hear from McPhillimy is an Emmylou Harris piece, which sets the scene for the performances to follow. It is, says Carson, a song about pinning down a lost America.

'I was thinking about how things disappear and how American culture disappears,' she says. 'Malcolm Orange Disappears is about a little boy, but it’s also about America, and trying to pin down little bits of culture before they disappear.'

McPhillimy has the audience rapt with her rendition of the tune. A reading from Carson follows, which is subsequently paired with a song inspired by her words. 'Sinking' puts to music Carson’s observation of how older people often start to ‘disappear’ as they age, and features some of the characters from her book. McPhillimy’s vocals are emotive and poignant; the music expertly evoking a sense of what it’s like for these fictional characters and also, for their non-fictional counterparts.

Next, we enjoy a reading from Carson about flying children, who 'symbolise restlessness and the desire not to hold still.' McPhillimy’s song, 'Hold Still', captures the mood perfectly, the reflective mood broken with a rather jaunty tune in 'There’s worse places to leave your wife than Portland'which draws more than a few laughs from the audience.

We also hear an extract from Carson’s new short story, a tale about a woman growing into herself. The story is based on Carson’s grandmother, who worked in the linen factories all her life and only discovered she was actually very good at art at the age of 93. It’s another moment for pause, perhaps, as we consider the poignancy and the delight in this. 'Homecoming' is the song that captures the mood.

The evening ends with a final reading from Carson – an extract from her novel about the People’s Committee for Remembering Songs and an enthusiastic group singalong of 'Somewhere over the Rainbow'. Yes, audience included.

It wraps up an incredibly entertaining night of literary and musical talent which has highlighted a cause worthy of support. As my fellow audience member said afterwards: 'That was something special, wasn’t it!'

For more details on Singing for the Brain, contact  Murray on 07974 678 280 or email: seonaid.murray@alzheimers.org.uk