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All My Single Ladies: In Praise of Newness

15/07/2013 17:40 BST | Updated 14/09/2013 10:12 BST
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"Look my darling, I'm ninety years old. These musicians come here, and they play old things, always old. I don't want to look back anymore. We're alive NOW. So play me something totally new. Play some pop. Like Adele, but not so miserable."

"Do you know Beyonce?"

"No darling."

"Right."

I'm a Nordoff Robbins music therapist and it turned out that the group of care home residents I was with - ten older ladies - hadn't heard of Rita Ora either. I'd been playing the Ode to Joy on the piano. Inspired by their instinctive responses I had already revved it up a good few notches until you could tap dance to it, and we were all getting slightly unbridled about everything. And then just when Bob Fosse could have waved his jazz hands and we were about to kick our heels to Beethoven's Ninth, the wonderful lady on the end tells me to play something totally new.

I could have improvised something, maybe a foxtrotty rhumba number, and kept the spirit going. But this kind of glorious request is what I live for. Where else would you get asked to play a fierce R&B pop track on the piano so that ten beautiful older people can dance and feel alive, their gestures reflected in the music? It feels good to summon the energy of Sasha Fierce into a rhythm and style that ladies can move to in the dining room of a care home, finding a musical lick they can sing along to instantly.

And while that was on the go, I was whipping through my mental song archives trying to access the first line of the chorus in Radioactive, a recent kitchen-dancing favourite of mine by Rita Ora. In the nick of time I remembered it and we were all "palms to the skyyy", but in the same piano-bar style that kept my ladies dancing.

I think I saw during that particular mash-up that newness is really important. I heard fashion god Karl Lagerfeld saying once (not in person, mind) that he only cared about what's new. Nothing else. I think his point was that newness requires you to stay aware of yourself. This is a powerful act, and even singing a song can literally perform a new reality for you. Wowzers.

And this is in the context of a generation that is usually fed a constant musical diet of Hits from the Blitz and a bit of Cole Porter. We forget that the biggest hit during the Blitz was actually When You Wish Upon A Star, which is a pop song with the most irresistibly upwardly mobile tune. Sing it wherever you are now. It curls up like incense. While the bombs were dropping, people actually didn't so much look back, as face up, in an odd sort of way.

So I followed that up with a sassy blues version of Every Teardrop is a Waterfall. They hadn't heard of Coldplay either, which must make them the only ten people in the world who haven't. Coldplay have supported Nordoff Robbins, and without a shoe-horn in sight I can even say they were celebrated at the O2 Silver Clef awards recently. Muchly deserved, too.

And speaking of shoes, the point is that music therapy is one of those practices where we place a lot of value in 'leaving your shoes at the door'. It's that idea of music being an event where you have to always attend to the present moment, whether you're playing music that is three hundred years or three days old. That's what marks good musicians, I think. They play everything as if they are doing it for the first time. Witness Glenn Gould singing along with his Bach lines, or Simon Rattle looking perennially surprised by Mahler. Newness is not the opposite of age.

So the next week I went back to the music group and despite all my music therapy shoe-kicking training I of course wanted to see if Sasha Fierce would still be in the room. She wasn't, as it goes, but in my musical bare-feet I found that another glorious musical creature was there instead. It was slow, grizzly and swampy...and totally new.