"Songs can be the soundtrack to your life"

Musician and songwriter Ben Slack is helping people living with a terminal illness to compose songs about their lives. Working with Ben, people write and record a piece of music and then share it with friends and family if they wish to.

“Lots of writers talk about how writing helps them make sense of the world. I think that’s a general benefit of song writing”, says Ben. “I find the whole process fascinating – what people want to put in the song, how people phrase things, and how people interpret what a song will be.”

Alan, 62, is living with Motor Neurone Disease (MND). He and Ben worked together on his swan song.
Alan, 62, is living with Motor Neurone Disease (MND). He and Ben worked together on his swan song.
I wanted to share my thoughts in a way that was perhaps difficult to do face-to-face. The song charts the course of my family’s relationship over the years and the chorus goes ‘we can do this’. So the song is a bit of fun in some places, and quite poignant in others. I also wanted to explore was the changing relationship with my wife, from being my wife to being my carer, which is quite a tough thing. It’s hard for me to say – but I think she’s an absolute star.”
Alan, former assistant head teacher

Working out what you want to say

“Writing a song must be especially hard if you’re terminally ill, because you have so many ideas and a lot to say when you’re thinking about your whole life", says Ben.

"With a song, you’ve got to get down to the essence of what you want the song to be about, and boil it down to a core message.

“I’ve not written one sad song yet. There was one person who seemed like they wanted to write something quite sad at first, about how hard their life had been. But when I asked them what message they wanted the song to have, they decided that they didn’t want to leave behind a sad message and they started thinking about things differently.

“Lots of the songs are very emotive, but it’s all positive. A lot them are about people’s strengths and kindnesses. It’s really sweet.”

Inspired by my grandma

“My grandma died two or three years ago. Towards the end, me and my uncle sang her favourite songs to her. She was pretty much non-responsive because she had Alzheimer’s – but when we began to sing she kind of lit up and started tapping her fingers.

“I’ll always remember how powerful that was. With her Alzheimer’s the music memory seemed to stay longer than everything else. She’d forget lots of things, but you’d start singing an old song to her and she’d remember all the lyrics and knew them straight away.

“Then I thought how nice it would be to have a recording of her singing with us, because she’d always loved music – and that made me think I could do this with more people in hospices.”

Ben, 27, has been performing music since the age of 13. He's done lots of charity gigs in the past, playing traditional Irish music with his uncle.
Ben, 27, has been performing music since the age of 13. He's done lots of charity gigs in the past, playing traditional Irish music with his uncle.

Music at the end of life

“Music’s such a fascinating thing. Songs can be the soundtrack to your life; individual songs can represent so much to you. There are different elements to a song – musically it might make you feel a certain way, or the lyrics might affect you. I think a lot of people get so much joy from actually performing music.

“When working with people on their swan song, it’s about what works for each person, however they feel comfortable doing it. You want someone to feel happy and as comfortable as possible so they feel able to express themselves. I give as much or as little help as they need.”

Alan and Ben composing together at Marie Curie Hospice, Bradford.
Alan and Ben composing together with Lead Nurse Nicky Denbow at the Marie Curie Hospice, Bradford.

Something to share with loved ones

“Everyone's got the choice about whether or not they want to share their song, and I've been surprised so far how many people are happy to do so. A lot of people seem very proud of them, which is really nice.

“People surprise themselves with what they produce. They start off saying they’ve not done any writing, they aren’t a creative person, or that they can't sing. But by the end of the session, they have a recording of a song they've written, and they're just so thrilled with it.

“If people write something deeply personal and they don't want to share it, that's completely fine too.”

The Swan Song Project has been taking place at the Marie Curie Hospice, Bradford. Find out more on the Facebook page.

Photos: Keith James Photography / Photography for Life