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  • David Stanley

Rule 1: High expectation

High expectation is a phrase I often use at The Music Man Project. It means more than simply expecting good results, overachieving or outperforming targets. It is a statement of value, a prediction of sustained success and a faith that musicians with disabilities can break through the limitations that others place upon them.

High expectation means investment in the best instruments and equipment, the best musicians and teachers, the best technicians and the highest production values. It means performing at the world’s most prestigious concert venues in front of the biggest audiences.


High expectation means challenge. It means teaching the same musical skills, discipline and artistry as the mainstream but from an earlier starting point, over a longer timeframe and with a tailor-made approach. It means effort, patience and dedication. It means vocation rather than occupation.


As the ‘city that never sleeps’, New York is unsurprisingly a hotbed of high expectation and the epicentre of the American Dream. This was certainly the hope for millions of immigrants who sailed passed the Statue of Liberty before reaching Ellis Island (see previous blog Life is a tougher journey for some). The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, the set of ideals (democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity and equality) in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success. Tragically, like most of the world, high expectation doesn’t historically apply to people with disabilities, be it through innocent lack of understanding, unforgivable prejudice or most likely a complex combination of the two.


On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law bans discrimination based on disability and requires certain accommodations in public places. According to the Disability Pride New York website, “While the signing of the ADA placed immediate legislative demands to ensure equal access and equal treatment of people with disabilities, deep-rooted assumptions and stereotypical biases were not instantly transformed with the stroke of a pen. The promise of the ADA is yet to be fully realised.”


Improved access to buildings, better employment rights and properly funded special education take decades to fully realise and they have historically been accompanied by a change from isolation in large institutions under a medical model to care in the community under a social one. If you have a disability, your nation’s history, geography, culture and religious beliefs among many other factors will seal your fate.


In 2019 New York, a minority of people with developmental disabilities can access some world-leading examples of high expectation in music. At AHRC, I observed current Broadway performer Judy McLane singing with the amazing musicians attending the Our Broadway programme. At Daniel’s Music Foundation, the recreational singing group were brilliantly taught by their Artistic Director Gerard Powers, a former professional opera singer who has travelled the world performing in well-known opera houses. Gerard led vocal warm-ups, explained the inner workings of vocal chords and taught three-part harmony. He explained musical terms like unison, legato, staccato and tempo. He could have been teaching any aspiring vocal virtuoso at the Sydney Opera House!


The once-forgotten society has come a long way since 1990 but there is more to do. Whilst my Churchill Fellowship and life’s work might appear insignificant compared to many disability struggles, the Arts has the unique ability to shine bright lights on the darkness and crash and bang its way through the silence.


An audience member once attended a concert in New York featuring musicians with disabilities from Daniel’s Music Foundation. He only went as a favour for a friend and expected to feel nothing but pity for all the performers. After a few moments he felt like there was a mirror rising in front of his eyes and he quickly realised it was himself he was pitying. From that moment on he changed his view of people with disabilities. Without high expectation there is no concert. There is no mirror.

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