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Music and Memory

On Sunday I was at the Brighton Dome to review a Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra concert – a routine and regular professional job for me. My Loved One was with me and we seemed, as things turned out, to have left Ms Alzheimer’s at home for once.

Before the concert, I spotted Gavin Henderson – Brighton man, sponsor of one of the BPO principal players, senior arts administrator and Principal of Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. I’ve known Gavin for some time and had spoken to him on the phone only a few days earlier on a different matter. So naturally I scooted across to say hello. He was with another man whom I also recognised and exchanged pleasantries with.

When I got back to MLO I said: “Gavin was with Nicholas Chisholm and …”. Before I could finish my sentence to explain that Nicholas is now BPO chairman, MLO had flashed back. “Yes! He used to be head of the Menhuin School and you once went down to Cobham to interview him.” This from a man who a few hours earlier didn’t know what day of the week it was and had completely forgotten that we were going to Brighton. Alzheimer’s is indeed a mysterious, patchy disease.

Perhaps MLO was getting into his stride for the concert because music certainly seems to bring the best out in him. I’ve noticed before that it seems to keep Ms A briefly at bay. The Brighton concert – Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Brahms – certainly put him in a very upbeat mood.

Last week we were at Merry Opera Company’s staged Verdi Requiem at St James’s Church, Piccadilly. Well the “staging” is a bit odd but the singing is fabulous and MLO’s eyes shone from beginning to end – something I haven’t seem for months. Ms A was definitely on leave for a couple of hours that night.

Everyone knows that music affects the brain in general and the memory in particular. That old “they’re playing our song” cliché has a lot of truth in it. For us, since you ask, it’s the Brahms B flat piano concerto. Then there’s the way certain sorts of music have been proved over and over again to benefit children’s learning and development – the so called “Mozart effect”.

And it’s good, when Ms A is thumping on your door, to remember happy times. She doesn’t like those and sulks. Good!

MLO has always been a bit of a classical music geek – pompous with it, in his poseur youth of course but much mellowed now, I’m pleased to report. I came to classical music in the first instance largely through playing and singing it at school. Some of the first things we did together as teenaged friends was to share music, usually on his primitive “Hi-Fi system” (remember those?)  and, when we could afford it, go together to concerts – mostly at Royal Festival Hall or Proms. I can only have been about 15 when he introduced me to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and lent me a record of the Brahms’s violin concerto  – wonderful pieces both of them. What a gift! And, obviously, it’s something we’ve gone on enjoying together for the intervening half a century or so.

Whenever we hear something at a concert or on Radio 3  which we’ve known almost all our lives, I can see the music bashing Ms A on the head and triggering good memories in MLO. Music also makes him think – it’s as much an intellectual experience as an emotional one if you listen properly – and that’s very good for him too. It seems even to help him to remember other things I would have expected long since to have dropped off the hard drive in his brain.  It must be at least 15 years since I made that trip to the Menhuin School to interview Nicholas Chisholm.


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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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