Spotlight on: Katherine Blumer

Hear from Katherine Blumer, Music alumna who is returning to the University to study the impact of music-making on people living with dementia.

The past eight years have seen The University of Manchester develop a thriving partnership with Manchester Camerata, otherwise known as “Britain’s most adventurous orchestra” (The Times). Cementing this partnership is an exciting new ESRC CASE Studentship, which will see Music alumna Katherine Blumer return to the University in September 2021 to complete a Master’s in Research and PhD on the impact of music-making on people living with dementia.

Manchester Camerata has been delivering vital primary care to people living with dementia through its award-winning Music in Mind™ programme since 2012. This specialist music therapy programme uses improvisation to help people living with dementia to express themselves and communicate with others.

The Studentship is a collaboration between the School of Health Sciences, the Music Department, Creative Manchester and Manchester Camerata, and will see Katherine work across each of these organisations, as well as with the Salford Institute for Dementia. It’s a unique opportunity that bridges the gap between academia and the creative industries, and it represents an exciting new stage of the University’s partnership with Manchester Camerata.

Speaking on the partnership, Manchester Camerata CEO Bob Riley said:

“The partnership we enjoy with the University of Manchester is one of the most important long-term. Of course, there is the synergy with our long-term values, and desire to make an impact in the world, something that’s been particularly important as we developed the research and activity around our work in health, but also more recently with Creative Manchester as we developed both research and activity which is pushing boundaries, particularly during lockdown. Like any relationship, it’s about the people. We are so lucky to work with great people at the University, and their openness, creativity and ability to be a critical friend, has and will remain, invaluable to Camerata over the coming years.”

Meanwhile Professor of Older People’s Mental Health Nursing, John Keady, had this to say about the Studentship awarded to Katherine:

“This ESRC CASE PhD studentship (Health and Wellbeing pathway) is a fantastic opportunity to continue our collaboration with Manchester Camerata and their inspiring Music in Mind programme for people living with dementia. Together, we are building a research programme that focuses on moments and what it means to be ‘in the moment’. Creative music-making by people living with dementia is the ideal vehicle to enable this experience to shine through, especially when language skills may be compromised; it is a privilege to do this work and to be in this partnership.”

Finally, speaking on Katherine’s return to the University’s Music Department, Professor of Ethnomusicology, Caroline Bithell offered:

Katherine is the ideal person to undertake this new research with Manchester Camerata. Highlights of her time as an undergraduate in our department include her outstanding dissertation exploring how mindfulness meditation can help musicians overcome performance anxiety and her two-year term as Outreach Manager of Manchester University Music Society, overseeing student projects in schools, hospitals and care homes. It’s little wonder that she won the University’s Undergraduate Student of the Year Distinguished Achievement Award! We can’t wait to have her back.

To find out more about Katherine and the exciting work on her horizon, we sent her some questions.

Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Katherine BlumerMy main background is in music- I completed my undergraduate degree at Manchester University, focusing on community music. I then worked as a freelance community musician and performer for two years, before going to Leeds University for my Master’s degree in Music and Wellbeing. Music is such a powerful tool for communication and facilitation, and I have loved working in the field to date. The main impetus for focusing research on the field of music and dementia was through having a part of organising Manchester University’s relaxed concert series: these were wonderful events set up so that people who may require additional support could attend a concert and were the highlight of my university years!

Could you tell us a bit about your PhD?

Working in conjunction with Manchester Camerata’s Music in Mind programme, the University of Manchester and the University of Salford, the PhD aims to review the impact of music-making with people living with dementia, using an ‘in the moment’ immersive framework to track positive effects, rather than a commonly-used assessment where differences between before and after the music session are evaluated. The objective is to create and document a continuum of ‘moments’ within a session, to be able to highlight more subtle benefits of music for people living with dementia, using this framework as a means for reflection and contextualisation. This research is based on Dr Robyn Dowlen’s amazing PhD work also examining Manchester Camerata’s Music in Mind programme.

What are you most excited about in your project?

I’m really excited to be able to see the Music in Mind sessions and see how improvisatory music-making is incorporated within the sessions! The videos and testimonials taken from the sessions are wonderful and so lovely to see: I can’t wait to be able to be a part of such an exciting project for the next four years and to meet all the lovely people who take part in the sessions.

As an alumna of the University of Manchester’s Music Department, what made you want to return to the University to complete your PhD?

My undergraduate years at the University of Manchester were such an important foundation for my freelance career to date. Without attending the University of Manchester for my undergraduate degree, it is very unlikely that I would have been as effective a participatory musician: it is such a supportive, creative and exciting department for community music, and the lecturers are particularly inspiring in this field. It was because of my undergraduate degree that I went on to work in the field, working in care settings, hospitals, schools and prisons in the North West. When the opportunity arose to return to the University, it was too good to miss! I am very excited to be returning to work with such a wonderful team of people for this PhD. 

What are you looking forward to most about working with Manchester Camerata?

The work that Manchester Camerata have been doing with people living with dementia is so inspiring. I have seen first-hand how music can make people’s faces light up, can encourage someone to dance, can help with eye contact and, most amazingly, can transport people to another time or place. In these difficult Covid times, creating human connections becomes even more important! Manchester Camerata has such an inspiring community music department, and it will be an incredible chance to learn from the facilitators of the Music in Mind programme; their work is so exciting and I love how the sessions are so carefully supported to allow the participants living with dementia to thrive in the improvisatory music setting.

What’s special about the partnership between the University and Manchester Camerata? What unique opportunities does it create for people like yourself? 

The opportunity to study on the CASE Studentship programme is so unusual and exciting- to be working between effectively four institutions in total: two different faculties at the University of Manchester, the Salford Institute for Dementia and Manchester Camerata. It is such a unique chance to learn from and meet such a diverse range of people with so many different specialisms and interests. The opportunity to work between such a strong and exciting research institution in collaboration with a world-renowned orchestra with an amazing community music programme is so rare, and I am looking forward to taking every opportunity from both sides over the next four years!

What music are you listening to at the moment?

It’s been a bit of an eclectic mix over this third lockdown - I’ve been listening to a range of music, primarily feel-good music from the 80s and 90s! I’m also currently preparing for a clarinet recital as part of my masters’ programme, so have been listening to some new clarinet music for inspiration. A particular favourite is Svante Henryson’s ‘Off Pist’ written for clarinet and cello – a perfect folky duo!

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