‘In the moment’ with music – reflections on my CASE studentship experience with Manchester Camerata

Robyn Dowlen, Health & Wellbeing, University of Manchester (2015 Cohort)

Dr Robyn Dowlen is a postdoctoral research associate at the Centre for Cultural Value, University of Leeds. Robyn was awarded an ESRC CASE studentship (2015-2019) through the North West Doctoral Centre (now North West Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership) which focussed on understanding the ‘in the moment’ experiences of people living with dementia when they take part in improvised music making. Robyn’s industry partner was Manchester Camerata, an orchestra based in Manchester, who have a well-established music programme for people living with dementia and their family carers – Music in Mind

I remember the excited butterflies in my stomach when I saw the advert for the PhD studentship that I went on to be awarded – ‘Music Matters: Developing an ‘in the moment’ multi-sensory music assessment tool for dementia through participatory design’. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes… a PhD that brought together three of my biggest interests – psychology, music and dementia.

The studentship was a collaboration between the University of Manchester, Lancaster University, and the CASE study partner Manchester Camerata. The primary objectives of the research were to work in partnership with Manchester Camerata to develop a range of sensory responses to music created by people living with dementia by using a range of visual and creative research methods to ensure the experiences of people living with dementia were placed centrally within the research – you can read more about the methods I used in my recently published book chapter in Participatory Case Study Work: Approaches, Authenticity and Application in Ageing Studies .

I was based in Manchester Camerata’s offices for the first year of my PhD, and this is where I learned more about how they worked as an organisation and their motivations for embedding research within their practice. I was involved in every team meeting and even delivered Dementia Friends information sessions to members of the team. This allowed me to develop a really strong working relationship with Manchester Camerata and helped me to understand the challenges they faced when conveying the value of their music programmes for people living with dementia beyond reductions in so-called ‘behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia’. 

The collaborative nature of my PhD was underpinned by a fairly unique supervision process which included a team of six, including academic and industry supervisors from Manchester Camerata. Most people audibly gasp when I say I had five supervisors. But in reality, the expertise of each supervisor enabled me to develop a really holistic approach to research that centred on the lived experiences of people living with dementia, using methodological innovation in the context of a well-established music programme. I’ve actually spoken about managing and fostering good relationships with PhD supervisors on the Dementia Researcher podcast, so if this style of supervision appeals to you, do have a listen.

My fieldwork was personally the most exciting and valuable part of my PhD process. I embedded myself within one community-based Music in Mind programme across 15-weeks and was able to understand the intricate musical processes that happen through the programme. I clearly remember having a conversation with my supervisors as to whether I should sit on the outside of the music-making circle (the objective, hands-off researcher), or within it as an active participant (the hands-on researcher who shares in the experience). We decided that the nature of the research methods meant that I should become a participant-observer, rather than sitting on the side-lines. I was able to gain the trust of the people living with dementia and their family members using this approach, as well as developing my understanding of the sensory and embodied experiences held by people living with dementia ‘in the moment’. It was hard work juggling attending and observing sessions with participant interviews and reviewing video of the sessions, but it was incredibly meaningful to be able to join people living with dementia along on their musical journeys across the 15 weeks. You can read more about the findings from the in-depth case study findings in my recently published paper in Ageing & Society.

It was an absolute joy to reflect back with Manchester Camerata recently about the PhD research collaboration – you can watch my interview with them here. Manchester Camerata’s investment in using research to support their music and dementia work has been clear since the outset of working with them. It has been incredibly valuable to work with them as an organisation throughout my PhD work and subsequently. Since completing my PhD I have worked with the Camerata in the Community team to deliver conference workshops on the value of working collaboratively with researchers (Alzheimer’s Society, British Society of Gerontology, and Culture Health Wellbeing International conferences), as well as involving them in the writing up of all of my peer-reviewed outputs from the PhD. I cannot stress enough how valuable this collaboration has been for me as a researcher, and I genuinely believe the partnership has led me to the role I am in today at the Centre for Cultural Value.

If you want to get in touch you can email me using r.dowlen@leeds.ac.uk or you can follow me on twitter using @RobynDowlen

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