ARMED only with a clutch of musical instruments, an MP3 player and some song sheets, members of the City of Oxford Orchestra say they are using the power of music to light up the lives of dementia sufferers.

The Orchestra’s chairman Lindsay Sandison and principal oboist Andrew Knights visit the residents of Vale House in Sandford-on-Thames once a fortnight, and spend an hour playing music and encouraging singing with some astounding results.

Now they want to train more musicians to use their programme Music Unlocking Memories (MUM) across the county.

Miss Sandison, from Oxford, said: “As chairman of the City of Oxford Orchestra I have spent years watching people respond to the beauty of music, but never have I seen it in such a miraculous way as at Vale House.

“My mother Sybil was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2006 and I have watched helplessly as she has withdrawn from the world around her. She is now in a wheelchair, but if I put the radio on, she will wave her hand, and I know the music is stirring her memories.

“The City of Oxford Orchestra has long been involved in outreach work in schools, but more recently we also allocated money for a new project at the other end of the age spectrum.

“This was inspired by the work of Andrew Knights, who had launched a programme in Hampshire to take music into Alzheimer homes. The success of the project had attracted substantial council funding and Andrew was keen to expand into other counties.”

She added: “We hand out instruments, like tambourines and castanets, and Andrew starts a backing track and plays his oboe or sax, while I sing and dance – and it is almost like someone has turned a switch on in many of the residents’ heads.

“One lady, who was once a dancer many years ago but no longer speaks or moves much, actually stood up and swayed to the music. “Another lady started tapping her foot – her husband told us it was the first time she had moved in weeks.

“It is hugely gratifying for us and so encouraging for the residents’ loved ones or carers to have that short-lived, but very special glimpse of the patients responding to the music.”

Mr Knights lives in Hampshire, lectures in music at Southampton University and has had research published on the effects of music on dementia patients.

He said: “It is deeply moving to see people, many of whom do not usually talk or move much, really respond to the music I play. “The Vale patients love songs from My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The King and I. But perhaps the song that evokes the strongest response is Ave Maria. Some clutch their hands together and look heavenwards when I play that, it has a very powerful effect on them.

“Many of the residents at Vale House grew up in the ’30s and sang with their families around a radio or piano. So once the music starts to play, the memories – and often the words – are there, just tucked away somewhere in their minds.”

Deanna Isahak’s husband Frank, 81, has been a resident at Vale House since May. He was diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2007.

Mrs Isahak, 72, from Abingdon, said: “I think the sessions run by Lindsay and Andrew are absolutely wonderful. Frank really enjoys himself, pretending to conduct and also singing along. He is not usually able to communicate with me, so to see him really enjoying himself makes me feel very happy.”

The orchestra’s work at Vale House has been funded in the past by HSBC and the Tubney Trust.

Miss Sandison said: “That was great, but all the money got used up and we had to stop the programme for a while. Now we are self-funding it. It costs about £6,000 a year to go to Vale House, but it is so worth it.

“Andrew and I would like to train other musicians to do this in homes across Oxfordshire because there are so many people who could benefit from it.”

For more information on the City of Oxford Orchestra and its outreach programmes visit cityofoxfordorchestra. . An online clip of one of the sessions at Vale House can be seen by entering Music Unlocking Memories on YouTube