Continuing Life Ledger’s series of conversations with people that are shaping today’s bereavement sector, we spoke with Ben Slack the founder and artist driving force behind the Swan Song Project.
LL: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to find yourself in the death/bereavement sector?
BS: I found myself in the death/bereavement sector after losing my Grandma and regretting not recording her singing, this gave me the idea to start The Swan Song Project.
I have been writing songs since I was about 16, in my early 20’s I started doing community music work. At first this was a range of projects, teaching various instruments and running groups in different settings such as secure mental health facilities, prisons and with local youth offending teams.
Over the years I specialised in songwriting and developed a lot of ways to help people with no musical experience to write songs. I have always found this fascinating and repeatedly saw the therapeutic benefits the process could offer people.
LL: How did The Swan Song Project start?
BS: A lot of my musical upbringing was playing songs at my Grandma’s house, I would meet my uncle there and we would play the old Irish songs she loved. I have loads of happy memories of Grandma singing with us and after she died, I thought I should have recorded that. It would be so nice to have a recording of her voice singing and enjoying herself.
Then, as a songwriter I thought imagine if Grandma had written a song, I wonder what that would have been like and thought how nice it would be to be able to play that still. It then just clicked to me that I had a fair bit of experience writing songs with people and could see if people approaching the end of their lives wanted to have a go at this.
I had never run a project before myself and had no concept of how a charity could start but I was committed to the idea. The response we got to the initial sessions was amazing and it was clear it needed to become a charity and find a way to offer this service to as many people as we can.
LL: What is the main aim of The Swan Song Project
BS: The main aim of The Swan Song Project is to improve people’s experiences of end of life and bereavement. We want life to be celebrated more than death is feared and we want every family to have a song to remember loved ones by. We want to be there to support as many people as possible to do this.
Everyone is capable of writing songs and these songs are so meaningful to their loved ones. The songwriting process gives them a chance to reflect on their lives, communicate difficult emotions and leave something unique that can last forever. The songs also provide an insight to listeners about what it is like to know the end of your life is approaching, we hope this helps to reduce some people’s anxieties about their own mortality and reduce some of the suffering that comes with losing a loved one.
LL: What have been the biggest challenges faced by The Swan Song Project to date?
BS: We’ve had a lot of the same challenges most charities have had, especially during the pandemic, adapting services to work virtually was hard but has worked out well. Fundraising through the pandemic hasn’t been easy. I’d say one of our biggest challenges is finding the best way to scale the project and maintain the quality of work.
Being a new and very unique service, we are always trying to raise awareness and ensure people who may benefit from our support know about it and are able to access it.
LL: What do you feel have been The Swan Song Project’s biggest successes to date?
BS: Every song we complete with someone in a difficult situation. Everyone’s situations are unique and seeing/hearing their reactions when completing a song is incredible.
One woman said, “It had given a different perspective to saying goodbye”. One man wrote a song for his young daughter who would grow up with that song to always remind her of her Dad. Others have found closure and on difficult issues, reached new conclusions about their lives or even just found some joy in a time when they thought there would be none.
These are our successes and I hope there are many many more of these to come.
LL: Where would you ideally like to see The Swan Song Project in ten years’ time?
BS: I’d like Swan Song to be operating on a national scale with hundreds of songs being written every year. I’d love it to become a part of the culture, when people are approaching the end stages of their lives, they might start planning a funeral, ensure their will is up to date and write their Swan Song.
We want families to be able to share songs from past generations with their grandchildren and great grandchildren. We’ll have a team of skilled, compassionate, and diverse songwriters to help these people write their song in whatever style they want. It’s exciting.
LL: What do you feel is the single biggest issue currently facing the death/bereavement sector?
BS: I think getting people to engage with it before they absolutely have to, it is a real challenge across the sector and not an easy one to solve.
I think a lot of people try to avoid thinking about anything connected to death and then when a death affects them, they have no idea what to expect or where to turn for help.
One of the things Swan Song does well is engage people through music who then end up thinking and talking about death.
LL: Which other organisation/s or people really impress you in the death/bereavement sector?
BS: All the hospices we work with do amazing work supporting people. We have also done a lot of work with Full Circle Funerals who are a very community oriented funeral director here in Yorkshire, they do a lot of great stuff.
Everything Rob Burrow and his teammates from Leeds Rhinos have done since his MND diagnosis has been incredible as well, they have raised a huge amount of money and brought so much awareness to a such a difficult condition. They were big heroes of mine from back in my rugby days and seeing how they have handled all of this is just so inspiring.