EYES shut tight, 96-year-old Barbara Petrie appears to be lost in her own silent world until she hears those around her begin to sing and, suddenly, she’s alive.

Her eyes are open, she’s enthusiastically showing that she remembers all the words to Somewhere Over The Rainbow and, in between verses, there’s the semblance of a smile.

This is the second weekly meeting of “Forget Me Notes” – a dementia-friendly choir that’s using the magic of music to enrich the lives of those suffering from the cruel condition – and Barbara is its oldest member.

“It makes the world of difference for her to come here,” says her carer, Deborah Eddy, who is by her side, and joining in the singing

“Yes, it’s nice,” adds Barbara, who was once the proud Deputy Headmistress at Durham High School. “I like singing – I’m a better singer than a dancer, probably.”

Forget Me Notes is the latest in a growing range of creative community projects taking place in the glorious surroundings of Ushaw Historic House and Gardens, on the outskirts of Durham.

The choir meets on Thursdays between 10am and midday, starting with teas, coffees and chat, before the singing gets underway at 10.3am.

Indeed, dementia-friendly choirs are spreading joy across County Durham, and the aim is to bring them all together at the end of the year for a special Christmas performance at Ushaw.

It began two years ago with a conversation between Colin Robson, Durham County Council Community Arts Officer for East Durham, and Belinda Williams, the local co-ordinator for the Alzheimer’s Society.

Taster sessions were held in seven venues, leading to the East Durham Dementia-Friendly Choir being formed last April, meeting in Blackhall and Seaham on alternate Thursday afternoons. During 2019, the choir received financial support from Durham County Council, East Durham Area Action Partnership, and The Hospital of God. Age UK’s Durham branch spread the word and it all went rather well because, between June and December, the choir was invited to perform on nine occasions.

The success was followed by further choir sessions being arranged at The Lodge, in Consett, and the magic has now found its way to Ushaw, with Forget Me Notes in its formative stages.

The common denominator throughout the project is Bethany Elen Coyle, a community musician and folk singer, who acts as choir leader. She plays the guitar, has the sweetest voice, wears enormous Dr Martens boots, and has a gift for encouraging people to sing.

“It’s hugely important to harness the power of music for the well-being, joy, and therapeutic benefits of bringing people together,” says Bethany, who hails from the County Durham village of Greencroft.

“We want it to be an inclusive community choir – not just for those with dementia, but their friends, families, and carers. They are all welcome to come and explore music together.”

The repertoire has largely been drawn from the requests of choir members over the past year. “It’s always better to sing songs that you know,” says Bethany. Today’s list includes Danny Boy, What A Wonderful World, Moon River, Rock Around The Clock, Three Little Birds, Fly Me To The Moon, Amazing Grace, a Gospel medley, a tongue-twister of a folk song called Shul A Ru, and a special request from Barbara – The Lord’s My Shepherd.

Debbie Connell, Durham County Council Community Arts Officer, has no doubt about the project’s value: “When they first arrive, they might be a bit apprehensive but then you see them tapping their feet, and joining in. By the time they leave, they’re smiling.

“Music relaxes people and it’s something that can stir deep memories. It reminds them of when they were happy.”

Lucy Jenkins, Ushaw’s Culture and Heritage Manager, agrees: “We are delighted to have established the Forget Me Notes Choir at Ushaw with funding by Arts Council England. It’s yet another example of how we are broadening our music activity, from high end concerts to community participation, and encouraging more and more people to get involved in such a special space.”

Across the room, Helen Crook, from Hamsterley, is one of those having fun. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago, and her carer, Christine Chisholm, not only takes her to choir practice, but yoga and swimming as well.

“People with dementia can still live fulfilling lives and getting them involved in activities is so important,” says Christine.

On the way from Hamsterley, she also picks up a lady called Shirley. She is so badly affected by dementia that she rarely speaks but she has found a new friend in Helen. For every note of every song, they hold hands, and yet they only met a week ago.

 “I can’t really sing but I love a good sing-along, making new friends, and having a laugh. I love coming here,” says Helen.

The next song is Can’t Help Falling In Love With You, and the line “Take my hand, take my whole life too,” takes on a special significance.

During a break, Shirley can be heard gently humming Home On The Range, and Bethany immediately makes a note to put it on the song-sheet for next week.

As midday approaches, and Deborah Eddy announces it’s time to go, Barbara Petrie swiftly makes her feelings clear: “Oh, do we have to?” she groans.

“Don’t worry, you can come back next week, and we’ll sing Morning Has Broken because you like that one, don’t you?” says Bethany, with a reassuring stroke of the old lady’s hand.

Her words fall on deaf ears because Barbara has already broken into the first verse, the others are joining in, and there’s no stopping them.

Praise for the morning, praise for the singing…