In 2018, Mary Thomson took part in our My Time project, which paired ten poets with arts groups across Scotland. The poem which resulted from her visit to Local Vocals, a dementia-friendly choir in Helensburgh, is now being sung by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Junior Chorus.

We speak to Mary to find out how it feels to see her poem take on a whole new life . . .

Your poem ‘Singing Into Being’ was inspired by the Local Vocals choir, and you spent quite a lot of time with them. When you were writing your poem, did you imagine those words being sung at some point?

“I did, gradually - because of the form of the poem, where lines are repeated. When I was reading it aloud back to myself, whenever I repeated a line I would read it more softly than the first time it appeared. And then, when I did my first public reading of it, I actually marked it down the side with a sort of musical notation. So yes, I did imagine it being sung, and that’s what gave me the idea of talking to Nicholas Olsen about it.”

Nicholas is a Welsh composer living in Glasgow, a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (and now teacher there), who has worked with a number of internationally renowned ensembles. Tell us about working with him on the piece.

“I’ve known Nicholas as both a composer and a friend for a while, and he’s very sensitive to the material he’s working with – when he’s doing a commission, he doesn’t impose himself on it. He expresses himself, but he doesn’t get in the way of serving whatever the commission requires. And he read the poem and said “oh yes!”, so I thought OK, let’s go with this – I knew I could trust him to come up with something. Once he’d started I never gave it a second thought – I knew he was bound to really enhance the words.”

How did the connection with the RSNO Junior Chorus come about?

We’ve known Nicholas since he was an undergraduate at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He has since taught on their Composition Summer School and at their Junior Conservatoire. And he had already worked with the RSNO Chorus, so when we started talking about him doing something with Singing Into Being he suggested the Junior Chorus.”

Having young children sing a poem that is essentially about something that happens at the later stages of life (dementia) feels special

“I thought it was a wonderful idea, to have young voices singing about singing, and the connection with the dementia-friendly choir – the beginning of a musical career, the end of a musical life. Young people learn through music and repetition and this is what we end up remembering best – all the things that I mention in the poem. It all seemed to fit and all the pieces had clicked into place.”

What is it like hearing your poem being set to music and sung?

"I knew roughly what it would sound like, as I’d heard an electronic version while Nicholas was working on it – but nothing prepared me for watching all these young faces intently looking at the composer, and opening their mouths and this beautiful sound and phrasing coming out. It’s gorgeous, very moving and very exciting. I’m so lucky that this beautiful thing has been made out of something that I wrote.”

Looking back on the time you spent with the choir, what was that like? As you say in your poem, ‘when speaking is hard, singing is easy’.

“It was very touching spending time with the choir. I saw people with dementia come into the room who were kind of mute really, and not engaging with other people, or the place or the event. But when the music started, they just opened their mouths and sang – and that was extremely touching. You could see there was something deeply buried that was responding to a tune that they had known all their lives.”

Mary’s poem, set to Nicholas’ music, will be sung by the RSNO Junior Chorus at their 40th Anniversary Concert at the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow on Monday 20 May 2019. More information here.