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Interview: Hedda Kaphengst, director, Lifesongs

25 February 2022

‘It’s hard to do Abba justice when it’s just me and a guitar’

I studied drama in education in Germany, and began to develop when I moved to Ireland in 1998. I took singing lessons, went to drama school in London and in Dublin, worked in film and theatre, and produced my first play.

I was working as a chef in Kinvara House, a family-owned nursing home in Bray.
One day in 2000, I asked the proprietor, Mary, if it was OK to sing for the residents. She was delighted and even offered me payment, something I didn’t expect at all. I just wanted to sing and play guitar in front of an audience, to make them happy.

I still work in Kinvara House on Fridays, but not as a chef.
Since 2003, I work as a self-employed community musician, under the name Serendipity.

In June 2013, I met Rod Paton, founder of Lifemusic, at an arts, health, and well-being conference in Bristol.
I invited him over to Dublin to do a workshop with my musicians. Rod came up with the idea to work on a musical-theatre project called Lifesongs. He had plenty of experience, and knew how to structure and evaluate a project.

We launched Lifesongs in January 2014,
going into various homes to share music and sing with the residents. We received funding from the Community Foundation for Ireland for the first three stages, and now we are in stage four, with our own voluntary contributions. We still want to find partners to bring Lifesongs to the stage.

It’s important that residents participate voluntarily in the Lifesongs project.
Our contact with them is not intrusive, and it’s agreed and monitored by the management. Our conversations with residents are informal and grow spontaneously out of the music sessions. There are no questions. None of their stories are used directly or explicitly: they serve only as a general background and inspiration.

As we devise a longer piece about the experiences of ageing as a musical-theatre work,
the outcomes of the project will be shared in collaboration with community and academic partners, and played to local, national, and potentially international audiences.

I staged a one-woman play in Dublin
about the German writer Marie-Louise Fleisser — A Time of Reckoning — in 2008. I would love to produce it again. Through an article in The Irish Times and an appearance on the evening news, I caught the attention of a corporate sponsor. After months of negotiations, supported by Business to Arts, a sponsorship deal was signed in 2008 which led to the establishment of Klawitter as a company in 2010. The President of Ireland agreed to become a patron.

After the sponsorship deal finished, I had to fund the company through Serendipity,
with additional funding from the Community Foundation for Ireland, Dublin Bus, and Bray Town Council.

Financial difficulties are the worst thing
— cash-flow problems when homes didn’t pay on time — and finding the right musicians and training them when the company started to grow. But the work has been surprisingly rewarding, and I’ve had encouragement from unexpected supporters.

When the pandemic began, work in nursing homes stopped completely.
I found work as a project-development officer in Wales for 15 months, and started training as a couples’ therapist in May 2020. I had spinal injury in March last year, which gave me time to reflect on my life and relationships.

The positive thing is that,
now I can work in homes again, Covid regulations mean I work for two to four hours every day, in much smaller groups. It is more personal, and the residents appreciate it, and, as they sing together, they begin to talk together. As younger people come in, they request different songs, and I always try to learn new requests — even though it’s hard to do Abba justice when it’s just me and a guitar.

Nursing homes are not an easy place to work for a musician.
I developed a lot of patience over the years, and it’s good to maintain good relationships with the carers. Everything changes when carers get involved, which is rarely the case, but when it does, magic happens. If they bring people up for a bit of a dance, that’s a highlight.

I grew up, a second daughter, in a small village called Tettens in Friesland,
with my grandmother, because of my mother’s mental-health issues. While not everything was easy, she gave us security and a home. She was already 61 — my age now — when she took us into her care because she didn’t want us to go into an orphanage. My grandmother was my rock. Everything I do now goes back to her, to honour her.

After my mother recovered and found work in a care home in the town of Hage in East Friesland,
she took us back. My brother Michael was born in Hage, ten years after me. I loved him dearly and took care of him when my mother’s mental illness returned.

My father never married my mother, although he promised her dying father that he would,
something I still try to understand to this very day. He was already married with two children when they met, but they maintained a lifelong affair. I only met my father three times. He never took care of us or tried to see us. He never answered my letters requesting to meet and get to know him.

My mother gave me a necklace with the image of a guardian angel at the front,
and “May God protect you” on the back. I always believed that someone was watching over me.

At the age of seven, at Easter time, I watched a TV programme about Jesus.
It had a lasting effect one me. I remember the scene where Jesus is withstanding evil in the desert. Also, the story about the woman who was accused of adultery, and Jesus saying the words: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

My faith is important to me.
It gave and still gives me strength in difficult times. The accident last year broke a vertebra in my spine which left me completely dependent on my partner for some months. He lovingly took care of me, which was very healing for me, and brought us even closer. I learned to trust, and that being vulnerable and dependent can be positive.

I have three sons,
whom I named Thomas, Jann, and Christian. My sons were christened: this was important to me, but I left the decision about confirmation to them. Two of them are also confirmed. So is my grandson Robin. I sang at his christening, and it was his wish to be confirmed. Christian studied theology in Leipzig, and now works as a research associate and teaches students there.

Two of my sons are happily married, and they are loyal husbands and responsible fathers.
While all relationships go through difficult phases, I feel very relieved when I experience them resolving conflict in a responsible way, standing firmly behind their spouses and children.

broken promises, constant complaining make me angry.

I’m happiest spending quality time with my loved ones and having time to myself in nature.
I love the sound of water — waterfalls, rivers, brooks, rain — and birdsong.

Children and young people who help improve life on earth for all creatures give me hope for the future.

I pray for good health for myself and my loved ones.
I pray for guidance in difficult situations.

If I was locked in a church with a companion, I’d choose Albert Schweitzer.
My mother was a church organist, and loved Schweitzer’s books; so I read them when I was very young. His ethics and teaching was such a positive role-model to me, perhaps because I had no father. He was someone to strive towards.

Hedda Kaphengst was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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