The gift of a swansong
Songwriter Ben Slack has been working with Marie Curie to help terminally ill patients compose and share a special song about their life
When Ben Slack’s grandma was at the end of her life in 2014, the one thing that brought her joy was music. “Gran always loved to hear me and my uncle play music and would sing along. And at the end, when dementia had left her unresponsive to everything else, she had this amazing reaction when we played her favourite song as she lit up and started tapping her fingers,” says Ben.
After Ben’s gran passed away, the family talked about how special that moment had been and he wondered if he could bring this magic of music to other people. That’s when he came up with the Swan Song Project, which he now runs at hospices including his local Marie Curie hospice in Bradford. Here he works with terminally ill patients to help them compose and record their own song about their lives. “Although the process is completely unique for every person, I start by getting to know them and ask about the things that matter to them to work out what they could write about.”
A common theme many people choose for their song is family, either expressing their gratitude or telling their children how proud they are. “Some people tell me they can say things in a song they’d struggle to say face-to-face,” says Ben. “It’s such a privilege to do this as I find people are so brave. It’s fascinating too
‘Some people tell me they can say things in a song that they’d struggle to say faceto-face. It’s such a privilege to help them’
when people come into the session with no idea what to do and then come up with these really special phrases or stories.
“Earlier this year, I was working with a man and we said we thought the chorus he’d written would really suit a choir. So at the next session, he brought his two young children in and they sang the chorus – it was so lovely and special.”
Once a song is composed, Ben then records and creates CDs of it, which patients can listen back to and give to family and friends. Some patients also agree to share their song on Ben’s website, swansongproject.co.uk so others can enjoy it.
“Often people are surprised at what they’ve come up with and it’s a great sense of achievement for them, especially for those who think they’re not particularly creative or musical.”
There’s also the great legacy this song leaves. “I’ve heard some lovely stories about family members singing the songs of their loved ones long after they’ve passed away. I also find the songs really stay with me; that’s quite special to think the close family and me are the only ones that know this song.”
Now Ben just wants to help more people access a love of music at the most challenging moments of their lives by taking the Swan Song project to other hospices and setting up hospice choirs.