WHEN Ben Slack gets his guitar out and sings with patients at Bradford’s Marie Curie hospice, something wonderful happens.

“Most people don’t get chance to tell the stories of their lives. But there’s something about music that helps people open up,” says Ben. “Being with people at the end of life, I find they’re very honest and reflective. Songwriting helps them make sense of things.”

Ben “Buddy” Slack runs a project called Swan Song, giving people at the Marie Curie the opportunity to write and record the ‘song of their life’. He visits the hospice weekly and spends one-to-one time with terminally ill patients, helping them develop and record their own piece of music.

While some patients reflect on their experiences through life, others create a message for their loved ones.

Swan Song, run in association with the Piece Project and funded by National Lottery’s Awards for All and the Sovereign Healthcare Trust, has had a positive effect on those who have taken part, allowing them to reflect on their lives and helping them come to terms with their illness.

“As a songwriter myself, and a student of songwriting, I hear lots of songwriters talking about how it helps them make sense of the world. I think that’s a general benefit of writing music,” says Ben, 27, a professional musician who runs songwriting workshops. “With people who have a terminal illness, it helps them put their thoughts in order.

“The songwriting process at the hospice varies with who I’m working with. Sometimes people already have an idea for a song, others have no idea but when we start a conversation I take notes and something develops. Sometimes people come out with a beautiful turn of phrase and don’t even realise until they’ve said it, I keep finding that.

“I talk with people about their lives and what they want to say in their song, and we take it from there. One lady came up with a beautiful song called God’s Garden. In my head I thought it would be a piano ballad but it turned into a groovy, funky song. She said, ‘I didn’t want it to be a sad song’. Her family had it played at her funeral.”

Adds Ben: “I’ve not written one sad song yet. Lots of songs are very emotive but it’s all positive. Some people capture moments in their lives, others want to leave a message for people not to feel sad. They often say, ‘Something difficult is happening in my life but I’m okay with it.”

Ben came up with the idea for Swansong when his grandma died two years ago. “She loved a sing-along with my uncle and I when we had our guitars out. She had Alzheimer’s Disease but when we sang she lit up and started tapping her fingers. Her music memory stayed longer than everything else; we’d start singing an old song and she’d remember the lyrics.

“Towards the end of her life I thought how nice it would be to have a recording of my grandma singing a song she’d written. That got me thinking about running workshops in a hospice.”

Ben contacted Bradford’s Marie Curie hospice. “He blasted everyone with emails. There were so many, I almost deleted them - I’m so glad I didn’t,” says Lead Nurse Nicky Denbow. “This project is making a massive difference to some of the patients. We’re giving people an opportunity to tell their story and leave something very special for their loved ones. Swan Song has only been running a short time but we’ve already seen how powerful it is. The theraputic benefits of both music and storytelling are well known - to combine both of these is just wonderful.

“At the hospice,we aim to deliver person-centred care and this is a really great example of that.”

Ben has been working with Alan, 62, a former assistant headteacher, who has Motor Neurone Disease (MND). Alan, who visits the hospice weekly to attend a clinic, was among the first to take part in Swan Song.

“Alan was very enthusiastic, he wanted to do a song for his wife,” says Ben. “He told me he’s never been particularly expressive, but he’s great for detail. The song has enabled him to express himself in a way he may not have done before.”

Alan says: “I wanted to share my thoughts in a way that was perhaps difficult to do face-to-face. When the Swan Song project came along, I had an idea I wanted to explore and it seemed like a really good way of doing it.

“When I was first diagnosed in 2012, we were driving home and thinking, ‘How do we tell the kids?’ When we got home we got the kids together and said, ‘We can do this’. And that’s the song really. It’s a bit of fun in some places, and poignant in others."

Alan's song also pays tribute to his wife. "With the best will in the world, you marry in sickness and in health but that doesn’t really prepare you for this level of care. I think she’s an absolute star,” he says.

Adds Alan: “Ben is amazing at what he does, I think a big part of it is that he’s a very gentle person. It’s potentially a very sensitive area you’re encroaching on; people’s inner thoughts, and when you’re terminally ill it can be a tricky time emotionally. It wasn’t difficult to feel relaxed in his company. I didn’t feel there were any barriers to sharing what I needed to share, and we had a laugh. But his beard could do with a trim.”

Nicky says: “I’ve learned more about Alan through his song than I’ve known about him over three years as a patient.

“Another patient, Susan Haigh, has a condition affecting her airways and she can’t always speak, but in her song she says as long as she keeps smiling, the world is a better place.”

Once their song is recorded, everyone gets a CD of it. People have the option of sharing their song, on the Swan Song website and social media, or keeping it private. “People are very proud, they’re surprised by what they’ve produced," says Ben. "They start off saying, ‘I’m not creative, I can’t do this and that - and by the end of the sessions they have a recording of their own song, with them singing it. I don’t make anyone sing, but I encourage them. I sing with most people on the recording, or sometimes I do most of the singing and they read part of it. It’s a way their loved ones can hear their voice after they have gone.”

Ben is seeking funding to expand the project. “I’d like to extend it to carers and bereavement support services," he says. "Working at the Marie Curie has opened my eyes to what the hospice does - far from being depressing, it’s an amazing, uplifting place.”