In 1999, I taught music to a young man with Downs Syndrome called Tony. I did it out of compassion for one individual and it felt wonderful. The transformative effect of my music on Tony led me to teach a small group of people with learning disabilities. I promised them that one day they would play the Royal Albert Hall. It was a joke that became a dream that became an ambition and obsession. 20 years later, I presented 200 children and adults with learning disabilities from across the UK in a ground-breaking concert at the Royal Albert Hall. I taught the students, produced the show and composed the music. It was the UK’s largest ever celebration of accessible music-making, featuring orchestra, massed choirs and celebrity guests, and played to an audience of over 3000 people. It took two decades to fulfil my promise and I battled prejudice, ignorance and barriers to opportunity on behalf of this once-forgotten society.
After my initial, small group sessions, I started a weekly music school with local charity Southend Mencap and then, in 2012, I gave up my job as a Deputy Head Teacher in a mainstream secondary school to start a fulltime accessible music education and performance service. The decision was enormously risky for the security of my young family, but I felt called to make this my life’s work. I knew that I would be solely responsible for either my failure or my success and this felt incredibly empowering. I read a testimonial from the mother of a severely autistic child who said,
“Without David, my daughter would still be sitting in the corner of the lounge getting more fearful and frustrated with life, leading me into a deeper and darker place wondering if there was ever going to be any good come into hers or my life”. [Saturday Music School Parent]
Inspired by these words, I founded The Music Man Project, a new charity dedicated to sharing my work around the world. Concerts at the London Palladium, a Guinness World Record, performances to members of the Royal Family, a National Lottery TV advert appearance, multiple awards and our Royal Albert Hall debut all followed within 8 years. With no ongoing, private or state funding, our achievements all came from my single act of compassion with Tony in 1999.
Now I spend my time finding new ways to reach more people with my music, with plans to launch a Music Man Project in every county in England, in every country in the UK and in every country in the world. I began this journey by helping other people set up their own versions of my accessible music education and performance service across the UK as well as in South Africa, India, Nepal, the Philippines and the USA. I share my music, my teaching resources, my brand and concert opportunities for free. In doing so, my original act of compassion gets multiplied infinitely every day. I am passionate about using my music to free the constraints placed on people with a learning disability across the world, joining this remarkable community together through song, country by country.
“The most joyous time we have ever had. We couldn’t believe how much they have opened up. They have spent their whole life being told to be quiet.” [The Music Man Project in Bangalore, India, 2018 ]
My compassion has given me more that I could ever have imagined. I have the best job in the world and my students have created more opportunities for me to make a difference in this world than they will ever know. For example, I am a Hate Crime Ambassador, helping disabled victims report crimes to the Police. I am a Global Peace Ambassador for People with Disabilities (Global Peace Challenge 2020), a trustee for individuals with no living relatives, an advocate for families and a campaigner for equal opportunities for people with disabilities. I speak to people impacted by these issues every day and tell their stories through my music (such as my musical ‘From the Asylum to the Palladium’ at London Palladium in 2015), on my monthly radio show, my podcasts, my blogs and in published articles.
At the heart of my compassion is my love for my students. I think they are the best of humanity because they are incapable of hate. My late grandfather worked in mental hospitals in the 1940s and 50s. These were places where anyone that society deemed to be different would be treated as medically sick patients. My grandfather would have witnessed the administration of mind-numbing drugs, electric shock therapy and even lobotomy to people with learning disabilities constrained in straitjackets. They didn’t have any personal possessions or even their own clothes. Many of these people needed nothing more than kindness and the opportunity to express who they were. I am told that my grandfather showed extraordinary compassion for his patients despite such awful circumstances. Ever since my own act of compassion with Tony, I have been professionally and emotionally immersed within this community. I am extremely close to my students and their families trust me with their lives. I have a deep understanding of the challenges they face just to exist (isolation and loneliness, poverty, physical and mental health problems, dementia, Hate Crime, prejudice, inequality and ignorance) and I feel a responsibility to use my music to help them thrive.
The COVID-19 pandemic reversed years of progress, effectively forcing people with disabilities to return to institutional isolation, to medicalisation rather than the community engagement which our disability reformers fought for decades to achieve. During the pandemic, I created an online platform to entertain and engage people with learning disabilities around the world and even visited my students to sing and play on their doorsteps. With emergency Government funding, my charity delivered £6000 worth of musical instruments to isolated families and devices for the most difficult-to-reach people to access the internet.
Compassion must be shared in order to spread throughout the world, and I feel a deep responsibility to share my story with as many people as possible. In 2019, I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship which enabled me to learn from world-leading examples of accessible music education in New York. I was also recognised in the 2021 Queen’s New Honours List for services to people with Special Needs. My belief, supported by ground-breaking, empirical research at the world’s top music conservatoire, is that the challenges faced by most vulnerable communities can be addressed through creative expression, self-worth and a sense of purpose. This is why my approach is educational, creative and performance-based rather than clinical or corrective Music Therapy. In 2016, I gave a performance and lecture at the Royal College of Music and my work is now the subject of a PhD at this world-famous conservatoire.
I want the amazing achievements of my students to give hope to new parents who feel such despair when they first gaze upon their disabled children. I want to share their stories and show how my music transforms lives for the better. With musical opportunity, parents not only witness their children becoming stars of the Royal Albert Hall, but they also witness them becoming more confident, disciplined and balanced individuals capable of inspiring us all. I also want to empower and enable musicians like me to use their talents for the greater good, showing them how to achieve success in this field and why it is so important to do so. Too often, musicians who don’t reach the elite level give up on the Arts and tragically waste their gifts and years of training. I have shown that there are many ways to scale a mountain, and sometimes the biggest reward comes when you carve your own path. I have demonstrated a way to unlock the inner compassion that lies within us all.
My next ambitions are to enable my students to perform a concert tour in New York, to present at the UN, to write a book and to give our charity a home in a purpose-built headquarters. I want to complete my mission to expand my musical family in the UK and overseas so that I connect this remarkable community through song. I have no way of funding any of this, but I had no way of funding any of what I have achieved thus far in my life. I have found compassion to be the greatest currency on earth.