When Janice Turley was 39, she was focused on her career as a teacher – perhaps a little too focused. She’d retrained after bringing up her children and was in her second year as a primary school teacher in Hulme, Manchester. Often she’d put in 70-hour weeks. One of the school governors said she needed a night off.
The governor took Turley to see a steel band at a local school. It was taught by British-Trinidadian musician Arthur Culpeper, one of the pioneers of steel band music in the UK. The room was big and draughty, but the atmosphere was brilliant. “There was a chattery buzz,” says Turley. Learning to play steel pan was addictive. Culpeper was gentle and patient with newcomers. “Arthur stuck me on the bass,” Turley remembers, “I never looked back.”
Thirty years on, and Turley, now 69, teaches steel pan to a group of 15 visually and hearing impaired adults down the road in Stockport. Every Tuesday at 9am, she arrives with her husband, Barrie, to set up the rehearsal space. Sometimes her friends Keith and Irene, and her sister Pat, help. Because most players are visually impaired, they cannot read sheet music. Turley has created a system of brightly coloured stickers, stuck to notes on the pans, so players with partial eyesight can follow along. The stickers are tailored to suit each player’s specific visual impairment.
“I sit at the bass player’s section,” Turley says, “and shut my eyes. I think about how he can move. Can he twist far enough, to strike that note?” At 1pm, the players arrive and natter away. When Turley wants their attention, she does a drum roll. The session finishes at 2.15pm, and Turley and Barrie pack everything away. She feels exhausted. “I come home and lie on the floor,” she says.
Turley has done this every Tuesday for a decade without payment. “She really loves what she does and her patience and skill at making things as easy as possible for her players is heartwarming,” says her friend, Vivien McDougall.
What makes Turley’s contribution more remarkable is that she, too, is visually impaired. Her sight began to go in 2017. “I was watching Strictly one evening,” she says, “and there were two of everyone on the television.” She has cataracts and a condition called ocular myasthenia gravis. She is waiting for an operation, but right now Barrie has to take her everywhere.
“It’s the blind leading the blind,” she jokes of the band. Coordinating a group of visually and hearing impaired people can be challenging. “Sometimes people keep playing because they don’t realise everyone else has stopped,” she says. “They’re enjoying themselves a bit too much!” She has to be creative to keep everyone in time. “We have one deaf lady,” she says. “I put her on the bass so she can feel the rhythm in her body.”
Turley stamps to the beat a lot. Her feet always hurt next day. But is it worth it? “It’s a lovely atmosphere. It buzzes in there. No one ever wants to go home.”
They play all kinds of music: big band swing, pop, calypso. They have performed at the local beer festival, and staged Christmas shows at a retail park. At shows, Turley and Barrie carry everything themselves. “The players can’t help,” she says, “because they can’t see. We have to carry five 45-gallon oil drums down the stairs. It’s very tiring.”
But Turley is not complaining. She gets joy from the steel band. “You get defined by other people when you have sensory loss,” she says. “People think you can’t possibly do things. So there’s a big buzz in watching everyone pull together as a team.”
I know exactly how Turley will react when I ask permission to do something nice for her. “I do things for other people,” she says. “Not the other way around.” After some probing, she mentions a teddy bear that her father bought her on the day she was born. The much-loved Mr Teddy is now in pieces in a shoebox. Her 94-year-old mother, who is in a nursing home, has been on at her to get the bear repaired.
Luckily, Alice’s Bear Shop in Dorset has a bed free for Mr Teddy, who is carefully couriered from Stockport to Lyme Regis. A medical assessment finds that Mr Teddy has been “loved to pieces”, and he is admitted for treatment. Clinicians keep Turley posted with photographs before sending over a final image of Mr Teddy recuperating in a hospital bed.
A few weeks later, the fully recovered bear is on his way home. Turley calls me as she takes delivery. “He is gorgeous,” she says excitedly. “Gorgeous! He’s got a little bow tie on, and there’s a hospital band around his wrist that says ‘Teddy Turley.’ Do you want to hear him? Hang on a minute.” I hear Mr Teddy announce himself with a full-bodied growl down the phone.
She plans to take the teddy to her mum’s nursing home for a reunion. “She’ll cry,” says Turley. Afterwards, Mr Teddy will go on tour with Turley’s steel pan group. “I shall have to find the music for the Teddy Bears’ Picnic, won’t I?” Turley laughs.
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