The Inclusive Orchestra: CLS visits South Korea

Posted on: March 7, 2018 in: Comment, Comment & Media

Written by Zak Hulstrom, CLS Development Manager

For one week in December 2017, I was lucky enough to travel to South Korea and represent CLS at a British Council conference focusing on ‘Creative Ageing’. It was part-funded by the Baring Foundation, who invited CLS because of our creative ways of engaging older people through music. Ten delegates from the UK, and many more from Korea, came together for a knowledge-sharing conference, to tell our stories and learn how each of us are involving older people in the arts.

Creative Ageing UK Delegates 2017
(There I am at the front, on the right)

Our orchestra’s first projects in care homes began in 1998, when CLS musicians started visiting residents of Jewish Care, performing concerts and developing relationships with older people through a person-centred approach. Over the years, these care home concerts have become so popular that we felt we could do more: we wanted to open our concerts to the public so that more people could attend classical music concerts.

For nearly 30 years, CLS has involved people of all ages and backgrounds in music activities as a way of improving wellbeing and enhancing quality of life. Our approach is one-of-a-kind because all 43 of our musicians lead and participate in workshops in children’s hospitals, hospices, schools and care homes, while at the same time performing innovative concerts at major London venues (e.g. St Paul’s Cathedral, BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, Opera Holland Park).

We are constantly thinking up new ways of tying our two most important strands together (artistic innovation and community involvement) so we were delighted to be invited to South Korea and share our experience of producing our first-ever dementia-friendly concert.

Highlights from the conference

On our first day in Seoul, we watched a variety show featuring groups of older people acting, dancing, singing, and playing handbells and handmade box instruments. The first act ended with 100 women in pink outfits pulling all the jetlagged UK delegates off their seats and into the middle of an impromptu dance party.

(From left to right: Alice Thwaite, Equal Arts; Kate Duncan, City Arts Nottingham; Carol Rogers, Liverpool Museums)

The conference began on the second day with a plenary session entitled Why creative ageing? followed by themed sessions on ‘Arts and intergeneration’, ‘Arts and dementia’, and ‘Capacity building and training for catalysts’. The conference was followed by a series of roundtable discussions at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) the following day. Session topics included ‘Creative ageing programme developments at museums and galleries’, ‘Creative contents development’, and ‘Impact and evaluation’. Alongside the Seoul and Busan conferences, UK delegates Penny Allen and Diane Amans conducted dance workshops for teaching artists and older people.

My presentation was titled The Inclusive Orchestra and it told the story of how we break down barriers between music and our audiences. With success in attracting younger people over the past several years, we have started thinking about the barriers for older people to attend classical music performances, which led to our first-ever ‘dementia-friendly concert’ on 2 December 2017.

With support from our local Dementia Action Alliance, we provided Dementia Friends training to our musicians, encouraging a deeper understanding of the disease and the many ways it affects the brain (i.e. it’s not always about losing your memory; sensory perception can also be affected). The Alzheimer’s Society then performed an environmental audit of our concert venue, making sure that we considered better access routes into and around the space.

The Inclusive Orchestra

In between workshops, I was interviewed by Korea’s Educational Broadcast System, who asked me how I think music makes an impact on mental health. I mentioned how CLS is working specifically with young people experiencing psychiatric issues at Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School, as well as the excellent work that Rhythmix and Key Changes are doing.

After the conference in Seoul, the UK delegation headed down to the southern coast to beautiful Busan. We passed through steep hills and mountainous terrain, dotted with towering futuristic buildings. In one residential area, we had the opportunity to spend the afternoon with a group of older people at IMAGO, an incredible oasis of creativity led by older people. Approaching IMAGO, you notice the walls lining the streets begin to be covered in colourful murals, and entering the site there are puppets and cut-outs they use for storytelling with the middle school students from down the street.

We played a fun game, explained entirely in Korean, so those of us who didn’t understand just rolled the giant-sized die when we were told, and then cheered loudly when everyone else did! Our team won, as luck would have it.

Games in Korea

The second half of our trip involved a conference in Busan, and this time with a contingent of arts practitioners and local council members. One of the Korean audience members shared that she felt intergenerational arts activities are so important in Korea because of the deep divides between younger and older people. In my presentation, I emphasised that dementia-friendly concerts are one way of making sure that all generations of people have access to creative spaces to meet each other and share in the enjoyment of an art form.

Zak on dementia-friendly concerts

The next day, most of the delegates headed back to the UK. I stayed an extra day to perform a radio interview with BeFM (Busan-English FM) about the conference with Kyu Choi, the creative director of UK/Korea 2017-18 Creative Futures.

What did I learn?

Korean audiences in classical music are a very different demographic to the UK. An overwhelming majority of British classical music audiences are from the Baby Boomer generation, the majority of whom are retired. Whereas in Korea, audiences are typically younger women and ‘bored guys who are flipping loudly through the concert booklet because they’d rather be at home watching TV but their girlfriends made them come’ (

Koreans and Brits have a slightly different definition of “old”. The Korean term for people who are over the age of 50 roughly translates to ‘declining energy’ – a period of life that also signals approaching retirement. Retirement comes earlier for some than others, in part due to “older people” experiencing greater competition from younger colleagues entering the workforce. The conference in Seoul was held at the 50+ Centre, a forward-thinking activity space where people can come to socialise, watch a performance or get resources on how to find work.

Korea has a centralised body dedicated to arts and culture education. Whilst in the UK, we have a number of different charities with arts activities for older people, Korea has a state-funded institution (established in 2006): Korean Arts and Culture Education Service. They employ ‘teaching artists’ in schools and local centres across the country, and have branched out to placing teaching artists in organisations serving older people.

Thank you to David Cutler from the Baring Foundation for inviting City of London Sinfonia to be represented at the Creative Ageing conference in Seoul and Busan, and to the British Council in Korea for managing an intensely productive conference. Thank you to the Rayne Trust for supporting our work in care homes.