How historic collection of M&S piano music has helped reduce anxiety in people with dementia

“Oh my darling, oh my darling. Oh my darling, Clementine...” It’s a tune familiar to many but the traditional American folk song is perhaps not the first piece of music you’d expect to hear at the heart of a university campus - and a far cry from the records typically played at student union club nights.

But it was the lyrics of this ballad that filled the University of Leeds’ Michael Marks Building last week, with the culmination of a project to support people with dementia to engage with piano sheet music.

“If you’ve got music, you’ve got nearly everything you need,” one individual simply said of participating. For others, it was their tapping feet, clapping hands and singing along that spoke volumes as the programme came to an end with a live pianist performance.

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How crucial Alzheimer's Society service is making a difference to people with dementia across YorkshireThe scheme began last year, a partnership between the M&S Company Archive and The Leeds International Piano Competition, designed to explore a dormant collection of nearly 800 pieces of sheet music for the first time.

People who attend dementia day centres in Leeds have taken part in the project. Photo: Ant Robling

“The parallel aim was about developing a creative and engaging project to give people living with dementia a chance to carry on learning new things and to engage socially,” explains Jenny Rogers, the learning and engagement director at The Leeds International Piano Competition.

“People mustn’t stop learning new things if they begin a journey of dementia. What happens quite often is people’s worlds will get smaller, whether they want them to or not.

“They will stop being offered new experiences and sessions and activities, will often be really reminiscence focused. We thought everyone deserved and would enjoy a chance to explore music with us.”

Sheet music was a bestselling product at M&S during the 1910s, at a time when gathering around the piano was a popular form of entertainment for families and many stores had a pianist performing live for customers on the shop floor.

Some of the work produced by those involved is on show at a temporary exhibition at the M&S Archive, on the University of Leeds campus. Photo: Ant Robling.

The archive now holds a significant collection, from folk songs and Christmas carols to hymns and music for dancing, though much of it has not seen the light of day for the best part of a century.

The project, Stories from M&S Sheet Music: Leeds’ Piano Heritage, aimed to change that and has involved more than 20 people from Leeds’ complex needs day centres Wykebeck Valley and Laurel Bank.

My mother's heartbreaking fight with dementia - and our appalling struggle to get NHS funding for her care: Christa AckroydOver several weeks, the group listened to recordings of a selection of 12 pieces of sheet music, picked by Derek Scott, a Professor of Critical Musicology and played by one of the university’s students. Each session, they created artwork, poetry or writing inspired by the music and its themes including place, family, romance and dancing.

“Engagement with music and creative activities can reduce anxiety, lift mood and help maintain speech and language,” Jenny explains, “as well as providing important opportunities for people living with dementia to continue a creative and socially full life after diagnosis.”

The project has helped people with dementia to engage with music and art. Photo: Ant Robling.

In feedback from the sessions, a member of care staff talks of observing an unexpected outcome: “One gentleman who hasn’t been to the project sessions before and who will often find it difficult to maintain his engagement was tapping his feet and humming along to the music.”

Rachel Czwarno, a support worker at Wykebeck, has seen similar transformations in many of those who took part in the project. “It has kept people engaged at a level they can understand,” she says.

“People living with dementia can get quite high anxiety levels because they don’t always process what is around them. But with the creative work, it has kept them focused and reduced their anxiety. They’re a lot calmer.

“One of the last things that goes in your brain is your memory of music, and these people will have grown up with piano music. So this has had a massive emotional impact on them.”

Jenny Rogers of The Leeds International Piano Competition &Katie Cameron of M&S Archive. Photo: Ant Robling.

The M&S archive already has a schools programme and over the past five years has focused more time on activities for older people and those with dementia. Outreach officer Katie Cameron says its collection is “perfect” for reminiscence and the objects can inspire creativity.

“Everybody has a memory of M&S, whether it is that they wore something bought from the shop or they remember going to the cafe, it’s amazing how much it features in people’s memories, so reminiscence is really important.

How Leeds-based Opera North is working to make the arts more accessible for people with dementia“But we want to move on from that - we don’t want it to just be ‘remember when’. We want people to learn new skills, try new activities, try a new craft or something that they haven’t done for quite a few years.

“It’s almost pushing people a bit, but within their comfort zone. A couple of sessions have involved creating a poem or prose and that’s an activity which some people think ‘oh I can’t do that’. But actually everyone has worked together really well and created brilliant work. It’s about learning new skills or revisiting old ones.”

It is hoped now that the reach of the project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, will go even further.

Whilst a celebration to mark its end saw pieces including The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond, Oh My Darling Clementine and Cockles and Mussels performed live to the group from an Edwardian piano at the M&S Company Archive for the first time last week, the event also saw the launch of a free temporary exhibition at the site.

Sitting alongside the archive’s permanent Marks in Time exhibition - a collection of objects that celebrates the company’s development from its roots at Kirkgate Market in 1884 to its retail presence today - the temporary display runs until the end of March and features examples of the group’s creative work as well as the piano, loaned by Besbrode specialist piano dealer and wholesaler in Leeds, and examples of sheet music.

A recital of the songs at the focus of the project is also taking place at the archive next month and “interactive, multi-sensory” concerts will be toured to three care homes across Leeds.

“In those care homes we will be performing for people with dementia, that are probably not now able to come out and take part in activities in this sort of setting,” Jenny explains.

The group’s work has also inspired a resource pack of programme notes and recordings that has been made available online for community groups, schools and care homes to download and use to run their own sessions.

How a partnership between The Hepworth Wakefield and the Alzheimer’s Society is supporting people with dementia and their carers to access art“This collection is here to be used and we want people to access it,” Katie says. “This is the first time this sheet music has seen the light of day for 100 years so it’s lovely to know that some of it has been recorded and has been listened to and enjoyed.

"But we want to be able to reach a much wider audience than just in Leeds. The legacy will hopefully spread with the online resources.”

For more on the sheet music project and to access the resources, visit