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Music teacher with dementia defies diagnosis, conducts orchestra at 81: ‘It made me feel alive'

Paul moved into sheltered accommodation as part of his dementia care almost five years ago but music continues to hold his life together.

Music teacher with dementia defies diagnosis, conducts orchestra at 81: ‘It made me feel alive'
Image source: YouTube/BBC

There's something so beautiful about music that it can cut across everything and stick on even as people suffering from dementia potentially lose track of every other memory. For 81-year-old Paul Harvey, an old music teacher suffering from dementia, some of his own compositions are proving to be the tether to the life he led, the person he was, and the people he loved. It's been almost five years since Paul moved into sheltered accommodation as part of his dementia care but he recently fulfilled a life-long dream as he conducted a symphony orchestra of just his songs. It all started after Paul Harvey's son, Nick, posted a video of his father improvising a two-minute piece from four notes — F natural, A, D, and B natural, reported Good News network.


The clip went viral on Twitter and won hearts online. Nick posted the video to show that musical ability could survive memory loss. Soon he was invited to play live on TV from his home. A year after his performance on Breakfast TV, he was invited to conduct the BBC Philharmonic orchestra playing two of his compositions at the studio in Salford. In what was a personal dream for him, Harvey conducted the orchestra on two of his compositions including one titled Where's the sunshine. It made it all the more wholesome that his son played the piano as his father conducted the orchestra. It was a highly emotional affair for the family. The performance was recorded by the BBC Philharmonic orchestra as a single, with all proceeds going to the Alzheimer’s Society and Music for Dementia, which campaigns for people with the condition to have free access to music as part of their care.



For Paul, it was everything he dreamt of. “It was magical, it was very, very special to work with such wonderful musicians. It made me feel alive, I couldn’t believe that an orchestra was playing my music and I was standing in front of it conducting them. I hadn’t conducted in such a long time before this, it was a real thrill,” he said. Paul studied piano at the Guildhall School of Music and became a composer and expert pianist. His Rumba Toccata is still used in grade 6 piano exams. He had spent over 20 years teaching at the Imberhorne school. Nick was stunned by his Dad's transformation. “It moved dad and me and my two brothers beyond compare. It was a dream come true for dad to conduct and play with an orchestra of that caliber as an 81-year-old. It’s what dreams are made of. It was like an out-of-body experience," he said.



Nick says music is, in many ways, holding his Dad together. “My dad is still reeling, he was having memories of what had happened over the last few days. His short-term memory is generally shot to pieces but when big events like this happen it’s like a branding iron on his brain," said Nick, who added that music can tether memories and connect people to their past. “You don’t have to be a talented musician to enjoy it though. Just listening to music, it starts to trigger memories of the past and gives people that connection.



Nick has like he was losing his Dad for a long time but when sat in front of the piano, it was his Dad of old alright. “Dad was having a particularly bad day at the time. It was fascinating how getting dad at the piano at that time brought dad back to me. For the first time in years, he has got active again. It really brought him back to life again. He’s playing the piano more than he has in the eight years.”



More and more people are exploring the use of music in dementia patients. "Music for Dementia is a national campaign to make music an integral part of dementia care. There is no cure for dementia, but there is something readily available and easily affordable that can help. That thing is music," reads a statement on their website. "That is why we are calling for people living with dementia to have access to music as part of their daily care."


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