Voluntary arts is being celebrated at this month’s Get Creative festival. Jolene Campbell looks at the impact the sector is having across Scotland
Around Scotland, from church halls to kitchen tables, voluntary arts is a broad and diverse third sector movement.
Voluntary Arts Scotland (VAS) estimates that there are at least 10,000 community-led groups – singers, actors, dancers, painters and much more, all contributing to stronger, healthier communities.
Most are grassroots, self-funded and led by dedicated volunteers. The informal structure can make these groups all too easy to undervalue, yet their impacts can be transformative for people from all ages and backgrounds.
Local Vocals is a community choir in Helensburgh that is singing from a new song sheet. It is a dementia friendly choir, set up by founder Alison Gildea after she found a need for a relaxed community choir where people could sing for pleasure, regardless of previous experience.
It started with a handful of people and now the 40 plus have-a-goers are in demand, regularly visiting care homes and performing at local events. The oldest member is 96 and still hitting the notes, says Alison.
The project partnered up with Alzheimer Scotland to make the group dementia friendly. Several regular members have mild to moderate dementia and a few couples have joined the group over the years.
Alison said: “They can struggle with remembering things but the recall is amazing for music. That really boosts their confidence.”
Making it accessible for those with dementia means providing an environment where people are supported.
Peer-to-peer support helps create a safety net. Alison said: “It can be a scary thing to go into a group. If people need extra support, like to find a song, someone is always on hand to sit next to them.
“Some bring family members or carers. And the atmosphere is light-hearted. It’s not taken too seriously. I think that makes a huge difference.”
Volunteers are at the heart of the group from sorting out song sheets to meeting and greeting, there’s a role for everyone.
Research has shown that regular singing can increase immunity and provide a workout for the brain and lungs – these benefits are significant for those experiencing mild to moderate dementia.
Alison added: “The power music has and the effect on our members is astounding. I remember once seeing a husband reach out his hand to touch his wife during one song. It was a significant memory for them. It was so heart-warming.”
The daughter of one member who has dementia said: “My mother really gets so much out of attending. She just looks so happy and I am happy because she can take part in an activity with people her own age.”
Alison said: “We see massive health benefits. Many have breathing issues too and regular singing has helped this, as holding notes for longer improves lung capacity. I have asthma and have noticed a huge improvement.”
In February 2017, Age UK published an analysis of data gathered from more than 15,000 older people, which showed that engagement in creative activities makes the highest contribution to overall wellbeing.
In a number of national surveys, people taking part in local community arts identified a wide range of benefits; a sense of personal achievement, opportunities to meet like-minded people with shared interests as well as identifiable benefits for physical and mental health.
Jemma Neville, director of Voluntary Arts Scotland, said creative expression helps us make sense of the world around us and connect with one another.
“Regular participation in a voluntary arts group, such as a choir, gaming club, ceramics evening class, or community festival, offers the wellbeing benefits of being part of a creative community – the interdependence makes us feel valued and belonging to a place.”
Yet the informal structure of groups makes the value of this vibrant sector all too easy to overlook.
Jemma added: “Often these groups contribute much and ask for little – they help sustain rehearsal and meeting spaces like town halls, libraries and community centres and are pathways to and from professional arts practice.”
Voluntary Arts Scotland is shining a light on the everyday voluntary and amateur arts activity that is already playing a part in communities, as partners in the national Get Creative festival in May.
There will be something imaginative, provocative and fun in a place very near where you are nowJemma Neville, Voluntary Arts Scotland
The festival started as the Voluntary Arts Week in 2011 and was rolled out to the rest of the UK the following year. After a rebrand to the Voluntary Arts Festival a couple of years later it merged with the BBC's Get Creative long weekend in 2018. The purpose has remained the same – opening up creative activity to more people.
Jemma said: “Greater arts development work is needed at a local level to strengthen infrastructure such as networks, funding and accessible and affordable venues. And the cultural sector as a whole needs to recognise that active, creative participation is found in every place across the land – urban and rural, large and small – we need to value and meet people where they are, rather than adopting a deficit model of suggesting that communities beyond the large, publicly-funded venues are somehow lacking in culture. There will be something imaginative, provocative and fun in a place very near where you are now.”
In 2017 an all-party UK parliamentary report set out extensive evidence that voluntary and community arts can help meet major challenges facing health and social care; ageing, long term conditions and mental health.
Since choral singing has become a reality TV sensation its benefits have become well known. Across Scotland there has been an explosion of community choirs, and there is good reason for this, says Liesbeth Tip, founder of Harmony Choir in Edinburgh.
Harmony Choir is a not for profit group set up initially as part of a research project run by the University of Edinburgh into the mental health benefits of singing in a choir.
Liesbeth said: “The results of my original research project which created Harmony Choir showed that participation in a singing group leads to improved mental health, wellbeing, and social relationships as well as positive changes in self – and social identity, increased empowerment and connectedness with others.”
The choir was originally started by Liesbeth as part of her clinical psychology PhD at the University of Edinburgh, as a two-month research project to explore the impact of singing on wellbeing and views of mental health. Due to popular demand, it is still going three years later.
Through her clinical work Liesbeth found singing groups for people with mental health problems, but they were isolated from the rest of the community.
“People shouldn’t be kept separate. I set up the choir to expose people from different backgrounds to each other to see if perceptions would be changed. Even after one rehearsal it was clear that people felt the benefits.”
A couple of hours down at the community centre has been shown to help people recover from heart disease. It is an aerobically demanding upper body workout, improves airflow to the upper respiratory tract and boosts neurological functioning.
It also releases endorphins and makes the singer feel great. Researchers have even called for the NHS to provide singing on prescription.
Liesbeth says the choir also has social value as it changes attitudes; Harmony is helping to tackle stigma around mental health. “People are very open about their anxiety, depression or mental health issue. They expect it to be seen as okay, to be normalised. And we have different minorities in the choir. People see that they are more similar than they think.”
Despite challenges with funding following local authority cuts, promotion and venue hire, the community groups TFN talked to are positive about the future. There is a resilience that can come from the joint purpose and sense of community created by arts activities, says Keren Cafferty, arts coordinator for Easdale Very Amateur Dramatics.
“I think the panto has brought our community closer. We have overcome many challenges together from having to postpone the performance due to weather and the ferry not running, to rehearsing by candlelight due to 12-hour power cuts.”
Keren had no previous experience in arts before she spotted a poster for the Easdale panto when she first moved to the island in 2006.
After helping behind the scenes with props and scenery she braved the stage the following year. As her confidence grew she stepped up to take part in writing the panto. She has now written it six times.
“It’s amazing seeing someone take on a part that I have written and really make it their own. Despite being busy with my business I absolutely love writing and being in the panto. The last time I did any creative writing was in high school English class! It's such a laugh and I love watching how it all comes together on the day for the one performance. Every single person who takes a part or gets involved makes it what it is.”
The Easdale Panto started in late 90s in the old fish hall. While the community hall was being refurbished the panto had to perform in the pub.
Keren, who runs a busy restaurant, says the group has become part of the identity of the island.
“It’s an emotional involvement, you feel more invested in the island and determined to keep traditions going. We need more folk who want to see this island and its community spirit survive.
“We have a few stalwarts and as a group we encourage as many through the year to get involved. It’s not uncommon for me to be adding new characters and whole scenes a couple of days before to accommodate folk who decide to get involved at the last minute.
"We have re-enacted Monty Python and our Snow White and the Four Dwarfmen of the Apocalypse was hilarious. I've made amazing friends and I'm really proud of what we achieve within this tiny community.”
Helping seniors strut their stuff
From ballet to burlesque, 24 Carat is a dance group of seniors who perform routines they choreograph themselves. And they make no apology for strutting their stuff. Founder and retired teacher Jill Knox says the group is so much more than a community dance group.
“Amateur is okay if what that means is, loving it! Old age can bring loneliness, lack of exercise and stimulation.
“By nature, music and dance changes you. You are exposed. And being part of a group you are moving up to something better, it’s like another world.”
“Dancing is so good for the body. It helps you to think and remember, too. I have arthritis and a metal hip. When the music starts, I forget the pain. But it’s also as much about support, sharing and laughing."
The group made a difference to a widow, who had stopped going along after her husband died.
When she returned after six months, she cried and confided to a member that she was worried she would never touch anyone again. Jill said: “We hugged her. Then we all started hugging each other at the start. It sets the tone, warm, welcoming and supportive. She was so happy to be back in the group. We value each other.”
The group started with six and now there are 24 regular dancers, from 60 up to 86 years old. Jill says the group gives them back a sense of mastery. “Whatever we do in life, we need to know that even when nervous, we can stand up in front of others, with poise and confidence.”
By doing their own choreography the group is opening doors for people to get creative. Jill said: “It looks frothy and light be work very hard. The important thing is that we have a bash. And we always get audiences involved.”
Around a third of members have gone onto semi-professional companies and one 60 year old has progressed in ballet. Two dancers have entered international competitions.
They are working with professional choreographers ahead of a performance at the Luminate festival, as part of their programme of creative events bringing people together across the generations.
“Women my age are told don’t make an exhibition of yourself. Old ladies are supposed to behave a certain way. I remember my gran sitting in her chair covered in an old shawl.
“It’s sad that organisations and services being axed are often those very valuable expressions of community.
“We are changing perceptions. People in their 60s and 70s are doing sexy stuff. We had a burlesque lesson and it was epic. People my age should be able to be funnier, inventive, to strut! We have worked all our lives and now we want to have fun.”
Get Creative Festival takes place from 11 – 19 May this year. There are hundreds of opportunities to get creative across the UK.
All year-round, you can search for a creative group near you by searching the Voluntary Arts Creativity Map: