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Fascinating panel of distinguished speakers discuss ‘Music & Memory’

Fascinating panel of distinguished speakers discuss ‘Music & Memory’

By In Days of Heritage and Culture, Heritage Days, Virtual Meeting On 6 December 2023

On Sunday 26th November, three renowned UK Jewish organisations joined together to put on a fascinating and thought-provoking panel discussion on zoom, as part of B’nai B’rith UK’s annual European Days of Jewish Culture and Heritage.

Over 100 people attended the event, organised by B’nai B’rith UK, the Jewish Music Institute and Jewish Renaissance magazine on the subject of ‘Music & Memory: Unlocking memories and secrets of the brain through music”.

Malcolm Singer

Chaired by acclaimed composer and conductor Malcolm Singer, the panel comprised four distinguished experts in the fields of music and memory:

  • Professor Catherine Loveday – an expert on the nature of normal and impaired memory, Catherine is the author of ‘The Secret World of the Brain’ and appears as an expert psychologist on BBC Radio 4’s ‘All In The Mind’, as well as many other radio and television programmes.
  • Michael Etherton – a Music Scholar at Balliol College, Oxford, he has a performance diploma in cello and studied orchestral conducting at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. He is the founder of vocal ensemble ‘Mosaic Voices’ with whom he has released two hugely successful albums. He is also CEO of UK Jewish Film.
  • Ilana Webster-Kogen – an ethnomusicologist, specialising in music, diaspora and ethnicity in the urban Middle East, her PhD thesis focused on Ethiopian musicians in Tel Aviv. She also teaches Jewish and Middle Eastern music, hip hop, and critical/cultural theory at SOAS.
  • Judith Ish-Horowicz – a passionate advocate of uniting the generations, she is Co-founder and Director of Apples and Honey Nightingale (AHN), a community interest company and the UK’s first nursery co-located in a care home, Nightingale Hammerson, where music is integral to the daily intergenerational engagements, sparking memory and building relationships.

Expertly chaired by Malcolm, the event began with a welcome by BBUK Chairman, Alan Miller, followed by each panellist giving a bit of background about their expertise. Judith discussed the way that certain pieces of music can unlock happy memories from the past, especially among the dementia patients she works with at Nightingale Hammerson, when they are interacting with nursery age children. Apples and Honey is the first nursery to embed daily intergenerational activities within its curriculum and has become a global exemplar of this practice.  Despite the restrictions imposed by Covid, Apples and Honey Nightingale continued to deliver an intergenerational programme, overcoming the risks of isolation and loneliness for the residents while maintaining the children’s strong relationships with their extended ‘family’.

Together with the ‘grand friends’ (as they are called), the children enjoy the weekly Shabbat and Havdalah ceremonies, as well as exploring and learning about world festivals and cultures – particularly those that the children and families celebrate at home. This further encourages the children and older friends to share their faith, culture, and experiences in a mutually respectful manner.

Ilana gave a flavour of the music of the Middle East and how certain pieces of music can evoke a memory of a specific place and time. Her current work explores a triangular circulation network for Moroccan Torah scrolls between north Africa, France and Israel. She considers the migration and trade routes of the scrolls and the people who use them, and she examines biblical cantillation and its attendant gendered and ethicised performance practices.

Catherine showed attendees how scans of brain activity can show music calming or uplifting our mood and how people can lose so much of their brain to a disease like dementia and yet still have a positive response to music. She studies the nature of normal and impaired memory and much of her current research focuses on the neuropsychology of autobiographical memory. She works closely with people with various forms of memory loss and has a long-term fascination with music in the brain: she has carried out a number of studies looking at the cognitive and neuronal aspects of music processing. Recently, she has brought these two areas of research together and is now investigating how memories of music are central to our sense of self, imagination, emotional state and social functioning. She is particularly interested in the relevance of this for supporting memory and self in older people.

Michael told the audience about his choir, Mosaic Voices, recasting original parts of 15 carefully selected works from The Voice of Song and Prayer, known colloquially as the ‘The Blue Book’, which has been the foundation of Jewish choral music in the UK and the Commonwealth ever since it was published in London in 1899. It was originally written for mixed female and male voices – common practice in mainstream Orthodox synagogues until the early 1960s. In today’s Orthodox synagogues, tenors take the soprano and tenor parts, while baritones cover alto. The result is an elegant succession of songs familiar to any Ashkenazi shulgoer, presented as high-art choral singing that stands up to comparison with the finest religious choral works in any tradition.

Then the discussion was thrown open to the audience and the panellists were flooded with a host of questions, including: ‘Which has more impact on the memory: lyrics or melody?’, ‘Is someone who is a trained musician able to remember pieces of music better than someone who is not?’ and ‘Why can someone with a terrible stammer still sing perfectly without stammering?’.

The evening ended with a vote of thanks from BBUK heritage co-ordinator, Valerie Bello, who echoed everyone’s thoughts when she said: “We are delighted to have enjoyed the time and expertise of our four distinguished panellists, wonderfully chaired by Malcolm Singer. I think we have all learned a great deal about both music and memory from tonight’s fascinating discussion.”

Catherine Loveday

Michael Etherton

Ilana Webster Kogen

Judith Ish-Horowicz