My dream of performing at the Royal Albert Hall and expanding The Music Man Project across the UK and overseas has often been derided as utter fantasy. The General Manager of Southend Mencap always had faith in me, but as Music Man Project Essex Director Jenny Hitchcock and I trawled through celebrity twitter accounts one rainy Wednesday afternoon in 2014, even I began to doubt it could happen. Jenny found the Welsh composers Dan and Laura Curtis. The duo had successfully written for West End performers and had appeared on the One Show on the BBC. We made contact and they were enthusiastic about our work and ambitions. Dan and Laura agreed to become patrons and they kindly invited us to a special recital of their music in the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall. It is here, the target of my dream, that I first met their musical arranger, Al Steele.
Original music is the backbone of The Music Man Project and a unique selling point for our brand. For many students, my songs have been the soundtrack to their lives for two decades. For people with learning disabilities, the ability to truly know something that others do not is deeply empowering. Through learning original music which nobody else has heard, they become role models and teachers. Deep into my campaign, I still had no idea how to record, produce, sell, arrange or perform my music at the prestigious concert halls and theatres I had promised.
Although I was able to improvise at the piano (a godsend when studying at the Junior College of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where I was surrounded by prodigies who made me feel like a beginner), I lacked the confidence, experience and opportunity to explore musical composition in any formal way. At university, Musical Analysis became my passion and I loved nothing more than to pull apart the nuts and bolts of musical masterpieces to reveal how they were composed.
Then in 2003, I assertively announced to a panel of TV producers that I could compose a brand-new song for their channel 4 series That’ll Teach 'Em. I was desperate to land the role of the music teacher in their program so made the promise to help secure the part! It worked. I appeared in the primetime docusoap series and in the spin-off quiz show in 2004. The success of That’ll Teach ‘Em and the use of my song in particular filled me with confidence. Perhaps my songs could have a purpose?
My next big break came when Mary-Ann Connolly (future Music Man Project patron) commissioned me to write an orchestral score for a new operatic setting of Beowulf for her production company. Creatively I was up for the challenge, but I hit a huge obstacle. How could I get my music arranged, performed and recorded by an orchestra? My solution worked at the time: I wrote for two keyboards and used computer generated virtual instruments to produce the backing tracks. It saved everyone a lot of money but took ten times as long as the composing! I was pleased with the result but felt totally out of my depth. As new commissions came in, it was always the same story: I could compose the music but did not have the budget or expertise to produce it. Coming from a classical music background, I naively assumed my paymasters would all be able to read music! But they all required demo tracks so they could hear what the music was going to sound like!
As I sat enjoying Dan and Laura’s concert at the Albert Hall, I suddenly realised what my music had been missing all these years: Al Steele!
We sent Al the score to Music is Magic and waited.
Al turned our simple song into pure musical theatre, complete with sweeping strings and expressive counter melodies. I remember laughing out loud with pleasure on hearing it, something I still do every time I receive a new arrangement of my music to this day!
Al is one of the most accomplished and versatile musicians I have ever met. Whether playing, composing, arranging, recording or producing, Al approaches his work with professionalism, enthusiasm and most of all expertise. He is equally comfortable in both the classical and popular traditions - a guitar playing, singer song-writing music producer with a passion for Gustav Mahler!
Al immediately appreciated the need for the big musical gestures and high energy that writing for performers with learning disabilities demands. Our running joke is “more is more”.
Finding Al was just the boost I needed back in 2014 and he continues to be a source of inspiration to this day. It can be lonely coming up with new over-ambitious ideas and trying to convince people they will be as popular as the last. Human nature dictates that every new and unfamiliar piece of music is met with a degree of pessimism.
Al puts music and musicians first and is he is a true collaborator. Working together never feels like a financial transaction but a joint project that is fun and beneficial for both of us. Whether driving hundreds of miles to record and rehearse, working on arrangements throughout the night or spending all day with us at London concerts, Al will go the extra mile to get the job done. His kindness and commitment to our charity has been truly remarkable.
I no longer worry whether my music will ever be performed or recorded. I can focus on writing without fear. Everything in my head can finally be realised by someone who not only arranges my compositions for any kind of band or orchestra I desire, but who understands my musical intention. I have learnt a tremendous amount from Al, particularly the difference between the disciplines of arranging and composing.
Our collaborations have been many and varied, including:
· Music is Magic charity single (2015) – studio recording
· Music is Magic at the London Palladium Concert (2015) – pit orchestra
· Music is Magic at the London Palladium Studio Album (2017) – studio recording
· Music is Magic at the London Palladium Concert (2017) – band
· Music is Magic at the Royal Albert Hall (2019) – full symphony orchestra
The best way to explain the difference Al’s work can make is to listen to a 'before and after' arrangement. Below is the ‘Music is Magic’ song performed as originally written (please excuse the vocals!), followed by the charity single version arranged for orchestra.
Al and I are now working on a new album and new music for ‘Music is Magic on Broadway’.
I will always be grateful to Al for helping me turn utter fantasy into reality!
To learn more about Al Steele please visit the following digital platforms:
YouTube Channel Upstairs at Shabbey Road
Listen to a podcast interview with Al Steele here