null The story of Eero and the Music Motors – Music activities in a Senior Services Center

By Taru Tähti


These days art and culture are widely used in the context of social and health care services. The projects and studies on this topic often focus on the interventions that are carried out by professional artists or art educators. More rarely the focus is on the art activities that are put into action by the clients and the health care staff themselves. The Music Motors group, however, has been led by a client and a head nurse in a senior services center.

The Music Motors, Eero and Teija

The Music Motors group was put into practice in a senior services center in the region of Pirkanmaa, Finland originally in 2012–13 when I worked there as a facilitator and organizer. The point of the Music Motors was to train those clients who were interested in music to become peer leaders for the music activities organized in the center. The aim was to increase the clients’ possibilities to affect the music activities and to guide the clients and the employees to actualize something musical together without music professionals. In this way the Music Motors group was meant to support the musical agency of the elderly who already needed social and health care services in their everyday lives.

The goal was to gradually transfer responsibility for the group from me to the clients, who were supported by the health care staff. When I left the group in the spring in 2013, the participants of the group chose one of the clients, a man called Eero, to lead the Music Motors.

Eero was a 70 year old man, who lived in his own apartment in the center. He is a true music lover with a loud singing voice and in that way an obvious choice for a leader. I suggested that the group could lead the Music Motors together, but they did not feel comfortable with this idea.

During the clients’ first year of operating on their own in 2013–14, I still worked with the managers to find an employee to assist Eero with the music group. One of the managers took this group to be part of the activities organized in her care unit, but the workers in the unit were not very motivated. Their working time was reserved for their own clients and they did not see Eero and his music group to be an important part of their work. They felt that Eero needed more support than they were willing to give.

Eero has a strong personality and he is very passionate about music. Sometimes he became so passionate and enthusiastic that other clients started to be afraid of his language and behavior when he invited them to join the music group. Eero needed an employee to help him how to soften his message and to guide him how to give enough space and attention to all the participants in the group. Fortunately in 2014 a head nurse called Teija from another unit in the senior services center joined the group to support Eero. Eero and Teija have been working together since, and the group still gets together once a week.

The concept of musical agency

The concept of musical agency has been developed in the fields of music sociology and music education and can be interpreted in multiple ways. Music sociologist Tia DeNora sees music as a constitutive feature of human agency. Music is a resource which offers people power and opportunities to structure and organize their everyday lives. According to Sidsel Karlsen, a researcher of music education, different interpretations of musical agency share the idea that musical agency has to do with individuals’ capacity for action in relation to music or in a music-related setting. She makes a distinction between the practices and actions that are mainly individual and used for negotiating and extending one’s own room for action, and those that are mainly social in the sense that they allow for experiences or negotiations of collective agency. In my research, based on the conceptions of DeNora and Karlsen, I see musical agency as a capacity of an individual or a community to use music as a resource for affecting and structuring one’s everyday life. This includes, for example, affecting moods, constructing identity and creating social relationships. Music can also be a tool for controlling, for instance, the body movements of a group like in marching or dancing, or it might affect the decisions you make in the shopping center. In that way musical agency includes also the use of music as a resource for affecting the lives of other people.

Another important concept in my study is relational agency. This concept was created by Ann Edwards within the field of Cultural Historical Activity Theory and it has been used in adult education. According to Edwards, relational agency is a capacity for working with others to strengthen purposeful responses to complex problems. Relational agency involves a capacity to offer support and to ask for support from others. It involves recognizing that a person may be a resource and that work needs to be done to elicit, recognize and negotiate the use of that resource. Relational agency offers an enhanced version of personal agency and, as a capacity, it can be learnt. According to Edwards, it is also closely connected with the ideas of distributed intelligence and distributed expertise. For Edwards, the key concept in relational agency is ‘object motive’ – how the object of activity is interpreted by participants in the activity – because it directs activities. Recognizing the object motives of other practitioners is likely to benefit the clients but is not achieved without some effort. In her articles, Edwards focuses mainly on the object motives and the relationships between practitioners, but she mentions, that relationships between practitioners and clients can also involve relational agency. In this case I see relational agency especially as a capacity of the nurse, Teija: how she sees Eero, his musical background and his passion for music as a resource for new activities and how she negotiates with Eero to find the best possible solutions in the on-going situations.

Shared leadership

How does the shared leadership of Eero and Teija work in the Music Motors? The group gets together once a week. Usually when they meet, they sing together and talk about memories or other thoughts that the songs inspired. In general, they don’t have anyone to accompany them. Eero sings as a fore singer and the others do their best to follow.

Eero has been singing all his life. Before the music session he might walk from door to door and invite people to join him. Eero’s role as a motivator became clear already when Eero and Teija started their collaboration in 2014.

When Teija joined the group Eero thought that he had inspired Teija to start singing. Since then he has been inspiring, encouraging and sometimes pressuring the health care stuff about singing. Thus the roles have been reversed as often it is considered the duty of the personnel to inspire the clients. Eero is full of ideas about the artists he’d like to invite to perform in the center and the festivals he’d like to plan. He also introduces new songs to the group by singing them first alone in front of the group and then asking, if it’s the kind of song they could add to their song folders. Because of all this, I see Eero as an artistic director of the group.

The head nurse Teija could then be seen as an executive director of the Music Motors. Teija is the organizer: She makes the reservations for the hall that they use, sometimes months ahead, so that it’s easier to plan the schedules. She also advertises the music sessions for the other units in the center and creates collaboration with them. Teija sets limits to Eero and his dreams: explains what is or isn’t possible and how it could be made possible. She takes care of Eero by emotionally supporting him when he’s sometimes too sick or too tired to join the group. She promises Eero that if he’s too tired to sing at that moment, next week they’ll sing even louder than usually. She also makes sure that all the participants of the Music Motors group are allowed to express their opinions and that Eero listens to their opinions. In these situations Teija often resolves problems between the clients, the kind that could rise, for example, from different ways of communicating.

There’s also a third partner, who shares the leadership and responsibility for the group. I call it the support group. It consists of those participants who almost always arrive no matter what. In addition to the clients and the residents, the group consists of relatives of the residents and also the trainees from different units. It has taken two years for this kind of support group to form and its role is very important in supporting Eero when Teija is too busy to come or away from work. These people are big music fans and so called good singers, so they also support and sometimes also challenge Eero in singing.

The meaning of it all

What are then the meanings and impacts manifested in the process?

For Eero the group has given a permission to express his musical needs: to talk about what he’s interested in and what he is ready to do for his dreams, what is his potential. Planning the music activities has also been a way to build a bridge for the future. This came out for example in the situation, when Eero got sick and I asked him, if leading the group is too stressful in a situation like this. Eero told me that on the contrary, planning the activities that they could do in the future gives him hope and strength while lying in bed. The music activities were something that Eero was able to plan and to control where as being sick wasn’t.

According to Teija, acting as the leader of the group has also strengthened Eero’s self-esteem and self-confidence. His passion for music has become a source of energy for the care giving community and the group helps him to stay active when life feels too tiring.

In my eyes, Eero has also developed his social skills while working together with Teija ­– he seems to have learned how to listen and how to give room to other participants in the group. He has also become more resilient and less stubborn, willing to find solutions in music-connected situations: For example, because Eero is not a member of the church, earlier he refused to participate in the music sessions that the parish organizes in the center. Nowadays he has sometimes participated in singing hymns and he has also been performing in the concerts organized by the cantor.

For Teija, the singing sessions with the Music Motors have given a moment for pause and positive emotions. In her care unit, she’s open about the fact that she enjoys singing and feels empowered after the singing sessions. The most rewarding dimension for Teija is to see the happy faces of the residents and the clients who participate in the music sessions. It brings her joy when she sees how the residents get a twinkle in the eyes, get excited, memorize and discuss. Because of this Teija feels, that the singing sessions have enhanced her well-being at work. After starting to participate in the Music Motors in 2014, Teija has also become more active in enhancing the music activities in her own care unit. She has been singing more with the residents during the morning washes or when walking together in the aisles of the center. Teija has also established a habit of leaving singing books and folders on the tables around her unit, and she has noticed that the care workers, the practical nurses, have started to use them – taking small breaks in the middle of their duties to sing with the residents.

Eero and Teija have learned to trust each other during these two years. They have established a dialogue and an equal relationship despite the hierarchy that exists in the context of social and health care services. Working together has taught them how to share responsibility without getting stuck in the roles – a good idea can be carried out, regardless of whose idea it has originally been.

The Music Motors has brought more music activities to the center. In an ideal situation, the residents would have equal possibilities to participate in music activities. However, before we started the Music Motors there weren’t any regular music sessions for those residents and clients who were not members of the Lutheran church or didn’t want to sing religious songs and hymns for some other reasons. This senior services center, where we did the intervention, is located in a small town and the personnel in the center have had difficulties in finding musicians or music pedagogues who could visit the center regularly. The Music Motors is one possible solution for this problem.  

Client-led arts activities

Eero and Teija have two different kinds of relationships: As a client and a head nurse their relationship is strongly hierarchical, but at the same time they both have music-related expertise, which is needed in equal measure to lead the Music Motors group.

Using the concept of Anne Edwards, Eero’s and Teija’s personal object motives – the ways they interpret the object of the activity -  are quite convergent, at least close enough; they are both aiming at active and meaningful everyday life for the clients of the senior services center and they both believe that music is an important part of that.

The music group provides a framework, in which the client’s wishes and potential are recognized, but at the same time the potentiated agency of the client is limited by the framework and does not extend to the way the client is heard or treated outside the music group. The music activities are still important as a framework where Eero is able to express his needs and to use his agency, while probably feeling powerless elsewhere in his everyday life in the center.

To support the identity of the elderly, it is important to understand, not only that we have to make music available, but to make sure, that what is available, is the kind of music, which is meaningful to the individuals living or participating in the activities in the center. The regular art activities in the social and health care services do not always have to be led by art professionals, the clients and the workers might have a lot of untapped potential. It is important to support them so that they start using their artistic interests and abilities, for living fuller life and enhancing the wider well-being of their own care-giving community.

The text has been edited from Taru Tähti's presentation at the Arts Without Borders conference in Helsinki 20th of October 2016.

Blogwriting by Taru Tähti: Mitä jos ensin olisikin musiikki?