16 Nov “We All Have a Chance to Listen”: A Chat with Evelyn Glennie
“We all have a chance to listen,” Dame Evelyn Glennie tells me. A renowned percussionist, she’s played in performances ranging from the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics to the Grouchketeers band on Sesame Street. Her many accolades include two Grammy Awards and the Polar Music Prize (2015).
Her mission: “Teach the world to listen.”
I spoke with Evelyn this week about her experiences interacting with people with dementia while filming for the documentary Love Is Listening: Dementia Without Loneliness, and how that’s stayed with her in the time since.
I remember going into my practice room at home and I felt a completely different kind of musician.
How was it that you first heard about Memory Bridge?
Well, it was completely out of the blue. It was an . . . an email, I think it was, from Michael Verde and he explained about Memory Bridge. And so, he and Natalya came to the office here in Cambridgeshire and I was absolutely smitten by him, and I was just so pleased to meet them both. They were so incredibly passionate. And I just felt that, you know, this is maybe something we can be part of.
And, it was one of the best things that I felt like I’ve done—not that I’ve done, but I mean, the experience of meeting people with dementia, and of being completely out of your comfort zone—because I had absolutely no idea what to expect, really. It was an amazing experience.
Can you tell me a little more about the process of that? You talked with Michael and then what was the next step? Did you go straight to meeting people? Did you do any kind of training first?
There was absolutely no training whatsoever. It was literally getting two days in the diary to go to two different homes in South London. And I knew nothing about these homes. I didn’t know anybody there. I would meet Michael at the first home, and that was that, basically. I had absolutely no idea what kind of equipment to bring with me—I thought, I need to bring something with me, small handheld instruments or something—but I had absolutely no idea what would be appropriate or relevant or anything like that. And I took just a few bits and pieces with me and I turned up.
So that was that, and we basically—well, I say we—basically, I went into each room with the camera man and the sound person. They were so sensitive to the whole situation. They were absolutely wonderful, and Michael basically stood outside the door, and just let us get on, and that was that. So, you know, he was prepared for the door to open after two minutes or after an hour. I mean, it literally meant that time was left at the door.
There is no training, no kind of ''Right, do this'' or ''Do that,'' because that's not what the situation is.
So, it was really interesting, because each individual needed different time. I say “needed”—it wasn’t a case of need. It was just . . . They were almost the conductors in a way. They determined basically how long you felt you could be with them.
So, it’s a really interesting journey but no, there is no training, no kind of “Right, do this” or “Do that,” because that’s not what the situation is.
It’s not as though you can practice something like that. It’s not like a piece of music where you practice your part and then you see how it fits together with everything else. You can only practice just sort of being there with that person and then letting them guide the situation, cause you never know where it’s going to go.
I think for a lot of people it’s very uncomfortable. We don’t know what to do, how to relate with people who don’t communicate in the ways that we are used to. You said something really interesting about “on the other side of awkwardness,” finding this space for communication. Can you tell me more about both the awkwardness and how you came to the other side?
(Laughing) Well, I don’t know if I came to the other side. I think that that’s . . . It’s a bit, again, like a piece of music—it’s that again, you can practice a piece of music and you think you can play your part, and then you perform it and you realize that there’s such a difference between, you know, being in the privacy of your own four walls, then having an audience in front of you. And it becomes a different piece again. And then the more you play that piece, other things emerge, but it’s very difficult to stand back from that piece and to think, how are you really playing this and how are people feeling about it?
So, you never know if you’re coming out at the other side, even with something that you think you should be familiar with. And so I think in this instance it was definitely a feeling of being, you know, yes, awkward, and not knowing what to say.
And I think that was the one thing that Michael had said is not to worry about that, that that is perfectly normal. Let it happen, feel that, don’t try and fight that, just let it happen. So, if you feel awkward, you feel awkward, and that’s okay.
And I suppose it’s a bit like, again, if you feel nervous for a concert or nervous for something or another, yes, feel that nerves, and accept that nerves, and, you know, that’s a healthy thing to happen. And I think that actually really, really helped, so there was no shame in just sort of sitting there, not knowing what to do. That was a normal part of the journey.
But yeah, I did realize that every single individual situation is exactly that. It’s like pieces of music. They’re all completely different, and you can’t really think, “Oh, well that worked with Maggie, so I’ll do that with Johnny” or something. You’ve just got to wipe the slate clean, and start again. It’s a new piece of music, you know, a new acoustic, a new everything, really. And that’s quite nice.
Every single individual situation is exactly that. It's like pieces of music. They're all completely different.
And you talked about letting the person you were talking with—and being with—guide the direction that you went. Can you give me some examples of how that played out?
Yeah, for example, with one lady, I placed the frame drum on her lap. And so, she took her finger and started almost as though she was drawing a map or something, just following some of the lines on that drum, the contours of the drum. And so, basically it started a conversation: “Oh, is this a map of a particular country?” So had she been abroad or whatever, but of course there’s no meaningful—when I say meaningful, there’s no actual words that came out.
So you had to very much listen to the expressions. So, was there a little smile there, was a glint in the eye, was there something, a movement of the head, or was there a feeling of thinking about it or whatever.
So, with all of those things, you have to wait, you know, you have to be patient and observe what that might mean. And I remember just sort of from that, taking the mallet—and I had a big sort of woolly mallet—and I can’t remember if I began just to literally tap the drum very softly with that mallet, but she took the mallet, and she started stroking the mallet. As though she was stroking someone’s hair or stroking a pet or something, you know. And so suddenly this, then, became the focus, so the drum took a side seat in a way.
And when we left the room, she still had that mallet, and Michael was outside the room and he said, “Oh, we’ve got to get the mallet back to you.”
And I said, “Well, no, I’ve got mallets like that at home. So, it’s fine if she keeps it, if she wants to keep it.”
But the reaction of the staff was to try to get that mallet from her, and that in itself is a kind of lesson, in a way, because I couldn’t care less about the mallet . . . but what did it mean to her?
And I’ll never know what that mallet actually meant to her. Of course I won’t, but it clearly meant something. So, that type of material or that size, you know, an object could then be used to think, okay, can we create something like that mallet in order to give to her, so that it becomes something that is part of her.
I saw something that you’d said about this experience: you said that most people you meet in public relate to you through your music. You mentioned that this was in a way freeing because when you met with people with dementia, they didn’t have that role to interact with. They were interacting with you in a new way. What was that like?
Well, I think that, again, this is all part of the awkwardness, I suppose, and the unknown, where you’re completely in this environment that you have really no control of, actually. So, you know, nobody is applauding you for the performance you’ve just given and you give a bow—there’s none of that. And, I mean, it’s . . . it can be hard enough going into someone’s space to say, “Oh, hello, we’ve never met before, but I’m Evelyn” and, you know, “Hello, I’m Beryl” or whatever, but when you don’t even have that, then it—there still absolutely has to be the respect there.
So, the respect that you are knocking on the door, you’re popping your head round the door, you’re saying, “Hello, I’m Evelyn,” before you even step foot into the door. So, you’re still asking for permission to be in their space, even although you know that you’re not going to get a verbal response.
I just had to listen to myself as well—listen to what felt right also for me—in order to make sense of the situation.
We all have our space—and our dignified space—and that has to be respected. So, that was really important for me. So, nothing as regards to the respect of that person would change, whether someone could verbally communicate or not.
And of course, I had watched videos of people who have had incredible experiences working with dementia, and how physical they can become, and I felt that I just simply wasn’t at that point. I didn’t feel comfortable stroking someone’s face or going up really close to their face or stroking their arm to such a big degree. I was prepared to touch their hand or to touch their arm, but not, you know, have that sort of strong physical sense.
And, so, yeah. I just had to listen to myself as well—listen to what felt right also for me—in order to make sense of the situation.
I think that goes back to what you were talking about with allowing things to be awkward: that recognizing what’s going on in yourself—being in touch with yourself as to what you are ready for and open to, that seems an important thing as well, from what you’re saying.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s the same in whatever situation you are in. In a way, I mean, I keep referring things to music, but, you know, again, it’s that difference between thinking that you’re ready for a performance and then actually doing the performance. And it is a different experience, no matter how much you’ve prepared and so on. And you realize that by giving that performance, you know, you’re not by any means giving the definitive interpretation of that piece. And I think when you are meeting these people, it is a first date, in a way. Under no circumstances do you know everything about that person. But it is important to respect that they are people.
So, for example, one person I met . . . used to be a carpenter. And that was really interesting information for me, because I could then sort of really look at him physically—I could see his working hands, as it were. And when I put the drum on his lap, it’s the first thing that he did, was stroke this drum as though he was stroking a piece of wood or something, making sure it’s all nice and smooth, or whatever.
And, so immediately that opened up that kind of conversation. He . . . sort of started almost kind of thumping the drum as though he was hammering something.
And so, from the kind of thumping or the scraping of the drum, I could then create a conversation through scraping of the drum. So actually, maybe known or unknown to him, we were creating little rhythms together. And then he just all of a sudden took my hand and he placed his hand on top of my hand, and he sort of took my hand and scraped my hand over the drum, which was really quite interesting.
But all of this basically slowed him down, because he was extremely upset. You know, when I went into his room, he was crying, and he was almost babbling, in a way, uncontrollably. And, I mean, that’s quite distressing when you see that. So, you really have no idea what to do, what to say . . . anything, if you’ve got absolutely no experience whatsoever. So, you just have to go with your gut instinct.
It was something that I wasn’t controlling. It was something that no one else was really controlling. It was just this situation, how it was.
And so, by the end of that, you know, he had stopped crying, he had stopped babbling, and then he would sort of start talking to himself and then talk to someone else, but I had no idea who this someone else was, and he talked such a rate that you couldn’t understand really what he was saying. But at least everything had kind of come down to a conversation, even if it was with himself, and all there, you know, in his mind.
And did you find that this experience of meeting these people, interacting—did that affect you coming away from it?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I couldn’t explain it to Michael afterwards, but I remember going into my practice room at home and I felt a completely different kind of musician. I really did. I just felt something had changed.
I had no idea what, whether it was just the patience to really, you know, digest something or to let something happen or to have another take on something. I have no idea, but there was just something that had changed since that time, because it . . . I think all of the people I met there gave me a really big lesson on listening.
Because it was something that I wasn’t controlling. It was something that no one else was really controlling. It was just this situation, how it was. There’s nothing else to be distracted by. The pace was the pace of the room and of the person. No one was forcing anything. It was completely as natural as it could be, under the circumstances.
So it was quite interesting, and I think probably, just letting things be gave me a slightly different perspective, then, on just how I was interacting musically. You know, just sometimes let things be, and let them have their natural flow, as opposed to trying to do something all of the time with everything. It’s really hard to describe. I can’t put it really into words very clearly at all, but I was very, very glad of the experience.
Is there anything I should ask you that I haven’t? Something you’d like to share?
(Laughing) Well, that’s very kind. I mean, as far as the work of Memory Bridge, I think it’s extraordinary. I think that Michael’s vision—and to almost think outside of the box, by trying to get so many people from around the world connected, and people that you may not think would be necessarily interested or feel they have any kind of skills or anything like that—but actually, it’s not really about that. It is about connecting with people. And I think that’s what he has given to me, was just the feeling that, well, you can make a little bit of a difference, you know. I think that when we all realize that we’ve got an opportunity to do that, then lots of positive things can happen.
You can't just say, ''Oh, well, there's a group of people with dementia,'' in the same way that you can't say, ''Oh, there's a group of deaf people, and they're all sort of experiencing the same thing in the same way'' and all of that, and of course they're not.
And I think also, you realize that actually you’re closer to dementia than you think. Whether it’s through knowing someone, whether it’s realizing that this could possibly happen to yourself . . . it’s actually right on our doorstep.
And it’s really interesting, and I think it’s fascinating, to see how, you know, every situation is different. It really is. You can’t just say, “Oh, well, there’s a group of people with dementia,” in the same way that you can’t say, “Oh, there’s a group of deaf people, and they’re all sort of experiencing the same thing in the same way” and all of that, and of course they’re not.
In a week or two when Michael comes to see us, we’re going to meet someone, a composer from Liverpool, and he’s created a project called Hidden Voice. And basically, it’s to take conversations from people who have dementia, and also their family members and carers and support team and so on, just various things that they have said. And he has taken the inflection of that or the rhythm of what they’ve said, and created these pieces of music. And it’s really quite fascinating.
So, that’s what he and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic are doing. And so, he’s asked to write a piece for percussion, but by connecting it to people with dementia or people connected with dementia.
And so I then mentioned Memory Bridge to [the composer, John McHugh], and I thought, “Oh, it would be wonderful for John and Michael to get together.” And so, sure enough, that will happen in a couple of weeks. So we’ll all get together, and we’ll see, you know, what connections we can make with each other’s particular situation.