It was a pleasure to take part in a Q & A session for Wouldn't Change a Thing. You can read the full blog here or read my answers to their great questions below!
Could you tell us a little about The Music Man Project and what inspired you to start it?
The Music Man Project is a full-time music education and performance service for children and adults with learning disabilities. We operate across the UK and have even reached South Africa, India, Nepal, the USA and the Philippines. I try to nurture the innate musicality in everyone, provide the best opportunities for them to learn and the most inspirational platforms to perform. I was inspired by a friend with Down’s Syndrome called Tony. He loved to sing the 12 Days of Christmas in the middle of July! A taught him a few lessons and I was hooked.
What have been your highlights so far?
20 years ago, I promised my first group of students that one day they will play the Royal Albert Hall. Last year that dream came true as 200 of my amazing musicians with learning disabilities performed to 3000 people in this iconic venue, supported by orchestra and community choirs. Other highlights include breaking the Guinness World Record for the largest triangle ensemble (1529 triangles!) at the London Palladium in 2017, performing to members of the Royal Family and seeing my students open the National Lottery 25th Birthday TV advert. Perhaps the biggest highlight has been sharing my service to communities living in extreme poverty around the world. Most recently I travelled to the Philippines to establish a Music Man Project out there.
You are passionate about providing the opportunity for your musicians to work towards public performances, why do you think it is so important?
Public performance provides a purpose for musicians. It gives my students confidence and a feeling of self-worth and immense well-being. It also provides an opportunity for them to be seen in a positive light and to educate the general public about what they can do, not what they need. For a couple of hours, they become the stars, and everyone looks up to them. Without public performances, my students would get bored.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing performers with learning disabilities today and how do you feel things could be improved?
There is a chronic lack of high expectation when it comes to performers with learning disabilities. Many people won’t give them a chance. There are also lots of practical issues to overcome, such as access to the stage, toileting, feeding, medication and transport but exceptions should be made for those living in exceptional circumstances. This may put more pressure on organisations and certainly increases costs, but I have shown that if you are persistent then the rewards will be worth it in the end. The situation is gradually improving but access to opportunity remains the next frontier, as important as disabled access to a building.
What adaptations do you make to be inclusive at The Music Man Project?
I compose most of the music which our students perform. This means I can create specific parts to suit all abilities. We also use assistive communication technology and have begun to explore adaptive instruments. We surround our performers with the highest production values possible. This means professional sound and lighting, an orchestra to accompany them and celebrity guests to perform alongside them. After many years of training, my students have become disciplined, experienced and respected musicians in their own right.
Your work is used in doctoral research at the Royal College of Music about the benefits of music education, could you tell us about that?
Natalie Bradford, one of our charity directors, is currently completing a PhD into the effect of active music participation on the well-being of adults with Down’s Syndrome. My work at the Music Man Project is the basis of her research, which focuses on participation, education and performance rather than the more widely explored, and very different, medical discipline of Music Therapy. Due to be completed this year, Natalie’s study will provide empirical evidence of the life-change impact of our work.
You performed Caroline White’s ‘The Label’ at the Palladium, what inspired you to choose that book?
I compose a new musical theatre work for each major London Music Man Project performance. In 2017, I was inspired by Caroline White’s book ‘The Label’. Her account of being a new parent of a child with a learning disability had a wonderful central message – instead of giving people a label, let them create their own memories and form their own unique identity unrestricted by what society says you can’t do. This rang true for my own students. 50 years ago, they would have been treated as sick patients in a mental asylum. Now they were performing to Royalty, breaking a world record and entertaining thousands in the West End. My students were the stars of my musical, telling Caroline’s story with an insight and understanding that could never be achieved by anyone from the ‘mainstream’.
You recently travelled to New York to visit Daniel’s Music Foundation, one of the leading Special Needs music educators in the world, how has that visit influenced your work here in the UK?
I visited Daniel’s Music Foundation in New York as part of a 2019 Churchill Fellowship, awarded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. I spent a month in this great city learning about music education and performance for people with learning disabilities in America. I also established ‘The Music Man Project New York’. Daniel’s Music Foundation blew me away. I described it as a purpose-built music conservatoire for special needs, complete with recording studio, rehearsal rooms, teaching rooms and a café. I had the most amazing conversation with the co-founder there, who reaffirmed my own views about the important differences between Music Therapy and Music Education. I am determined to replicate their amazing facility in the UK, and we have agreed to work together in the future.
What are your ambitions for the Music Man Project going forward?
Following our ground-breaking performance at the Royal Albert Hall, my next dream is to take my musicians to New York for a performance on Broadway, featuring musicians with learning disabilities from both sides of the Atlantic. I want my charity to reach every county in England, every country in the UK and every continent in the world.
What has working with people with learning disabilities taught you?
Working with people with learning disabilities has revealed to me the best of humanity. I am in constant awe of their bravery and determination, and the never-ending struggle faced by their families. I tell everyone I have the best job in the world. The Music Man Project headquarters in Essex operates 6 days a week and I teach hundreds of children and adults. I also oversee our regional projects in Kent, Sussex, Suffolk, Surrey, Hertfordshire, Hampshire, Bristol, Lincolnshire, Merseyside (“MMP Strawberry Field”), South Africa, India, Nepal, the Philippines and the USA. It is exhausting but exhilarating.
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