2023 was transformational for our charity. Our role-model musicians conquered America, enthralled six UK cities on tour with the Royal Marines, performed in the most historic buildings of the land and astounded the Prime Minister, His Majesty the King, the Speaker of the House of Commons and the legendary Michael Ball. With the help of the TEAM LEWIS Foundation, musicians with learning disabilities are making history through truly groundbreaking adventures. In 2024 they will climb even greater heights!
If you had told me twenty years ago that in 2023 I will tour San Diego, accept an award from singing legend Michael Ball on TV, entertain the King at the Royal Albert Hall, run a workshop at 10 Downing Street for the Prime Minister, tour 5 UK Cities with The Band of His Majesty’s Royal Marines and make the Speaker of the House of Commons dance at his house in Westminster… I would have said you were crazy!
2023 was certainly a crazy year.
I first pay tribute to our regional Music Man Projects for all their achievements throughout the year. Their staff and volunteers work immensely hard to provide life-changing musical opportunities for their local learning-disabled communities. We support the most wonderful regional partners across our network of licenced projects, and it’s our privilege to facilitate and promote their work. In 2023, we also introduced a weekly “Ask the Music Man” Zoom call to aid communication between charity directors, trustees and regional tutors. I love sharing their progress, performances and fundraising events across our social media channels. Huge congratulations to you all!
As the overarching charity, The Music Man Project provides the teaching template for regional services, along with exclusive access to grants, original music, media resources and marketing opportunities. We also provide unique opportunities for our regional projects across the country to perform in joint concerts at prestigious venues such as the London Palladium and the Royal Albert Hall. There is nothing more thrilling than to witness several hundred musicians with learning disabilities performing together as one big musical family.
Beyond establishing new Music Man Projects and supporting our growing network of regional partners, our charity remit is to raise awareness of the talents of musicians with learning disabilities and promote equal access to quality education and performance on both a national and international scale. Once again this work was led by my team of outstanding, award-winning ambassadors from our headquarters in the City of Southend-on-Sea. Almost on a monthly basis, this team of volunteers have shown that anything is possible with the right support, motivation and most of all, hard work!
January: San Diego, USA
The year began with our first ever international tour featuring Music Man Project students. I had previously travelled to India, Nepal, South Africa, America and the Philippines either alone or with other tutors and volunteers. However, thanks to the enormous generosity of our global marketing partner, TEAM LEWIS, we were able to take a small group of ambassadors to San Diego for an adventure of a lifetime. The students performed with the Royal Marines at a Children’s Hospital and on board the iconic aircraft carrier, USS Midway. They also delivered workshops for TEAM LEWIS global staff and at a local high school. The trip re-energised the group for the year ahead and signalled their new era as Global Ambassadors for The Music Man Project, for Southend and for the UK as a whole.
February: Appearance at the AO Arena, Manchester
In February I was honoured to receive a Special Recognition Award from Musical Theatre legend, Michael Ball, in front of 12,000 people at the National Lottery’s Big Night of Musicals. The BBC1 broadcast reached millions, giving my 23-year-long campaign for equal opportunities in the Arts for people with learning disabilities a public exposure I could only dream of. As you would expect, the stars of the show were our ambassadors! Their love and affection for Michael led directly to him becoming our charity patron and agreeing to perform with us at the Royal Albert Hall – live on his BBC Radio 2 show the next day!
March: Performance at the Mountbatten Festival of Music in front of the King
In March an extended group of 14 ambassadors performed at the 2023 Mountbatten Festival of Music - the annual flagship concert by the Massed Bands of His Majesty’s Royal Marines. They entertained 15,000 people across three sold-out performances. Every single person gave us a standing ovation, including His Majesty the King! It was another fantastic chapter in our unique partnership with the Royal Marines which had already witnessed a top-10 Christmas single release in December 2022.
March: Performance at the NEC, Birmingham
We were also delighted to return to the NEC in Birmingham for another performance at Naidex - Europe’s largest disability show.
May: Performance at London Southend Airport
In May the Ambassadors stayed closer to home with a performance at London Southend Airport to welcome passengers on their first flights from Amsterdam since the pandemic. We love working with Southend Airport and a giant display of our students still proudly welcomes all passengers to the City!
June: Music Workshop at 10 Downing Street
In June we were invited to run a music workshop for local primary school children at 10 Downing Street for Mrs Murty, the Prime Minister’s wife. We somehow managed to get 15 African drums, a multitude of hand percussion, glockenspiels, a drum kit, electric piano, PA system, bass guitar and banners up to the State Reception Room, either in the small lift or up the famous staircase with previous Prime Ministers adorning the walls – minus a dancing Hugh Grant from Love Actually! Our performance was another spectacular success. I was told to turn my piano down because the PM was on an important call in another room. Fortunately he wasn’t cross and said that between my music and the cricket, he got nothing done anyway. Our ‘High Low Middle’ dancing routine almost smashed a priceless chandelier and ambassador Sam virtually snogged Rishi Sunak when they both kissed each other on different cheeks and met in the middle. I’m not sure the heart of UK Government had ever seen anything like us before!
July: Performance with the Royal Marines at Deal Memorial Bandstand
July began with a moving performance of 'Music is Magic' at Deal Memorial Bandstand with the Bands of His Majesty's Royal Marines. Despite the rain, thousands of people turned out to support the annual memorial concert and rededication ceremony. The event raised over £10,000 from donations on the day alone.
July: TEAM LEWIS Foundation’s Summer Festival in College Garden, Westminster
July continued with a special appearance in College Garden (behind Westminster Abbey) for the second annual London Summer Festival hosted by the TEAM LEWIS Foundation. As well as performing, we met many of the other causes they support and it was amazing to see the community network they’ve built in less than three years.
September/October: UK Tour with the Royal Marines
We were invited to join the Royal Marines on their first ever UK tour following the success of our Mountbatten Festival of Music debut. Although our musicians had travelled around the country to launch new Music Man Projects (usually supported by the Salvation Army), the prospect of going away for several nights in a row and performing in different cities presented new challenges for the group. To my utter astonishment, the ambassadors took it all in their stride again! Capacity audiences in Nottingham, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester and Gateshead emulated their Royal Albert Hall counterparts with joyous standing ovations at every venue. In the words of the Royal Marines themselves, The Music Man Project stole the show everywhere we went!
November: Performance at the Painted Hall, Royal Naval Collage, Greenwich
In November we returned to the stunning surroundings of the Painted Hall in Greenwich to perform at the HMS Oardacious Charity Gala in aid of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines charities. We even auctioned off a box for our Royal Albert Hall concert along with a beautiful quilt made by the mother and supporters of one of our ambassadors. We look forward to coming back next year!
November: First rehearsal with new patron, Michael Ball OBE
One of the biggest highlights of the year was our first rehearsal with our new patron, Michael Ball. Michael was amazing with our students when he visited The Music Man Project headquarters in Southend. He was so generous with his time and sounded amazing as he practiced my new song ‘Make A Difference’ (with wonderful words by our charity director, Sarah Mann). We can’t wait to perform with Michael at the Royal Albert Hall on April 8th!
November: Speakers House, Westminster for UK Disability History Month
UK Disability History Month 2023 showcased the story of disabled peoples’ historic struggle for equality and human rights. The Music Man Project was asked to perform for the centrepiece event – a reception in the Speaker’s House at the Houses of Parliament. It was hosted by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lyndsay Hoyle. Having already danced with the Prime Minister, it was now the turn of Mr Speaker to be taken under our musical spell. Before long Sir Lyndsay was dancing Gangnam style and the Can-Can, his beaming smile and raucous laughter mirroring the ambassadors with every note and movement. It was the last major commitment of the year before they returned to Southend to focus on local Christmas events and engagements.
On top of all these accomplishments, the ambassadors continued to launch new regional Music Man Projects in partnership with the Salvation Army, took the total of Essex children reached with their school workshops to over 15,000, instructed music teachers through our Special Needs Music Education seminars, engaged with new corporate businesses, collaborators and sponsors, and performed dozens of concerts to raise money for the national charity, rather than their own local Music Man service. I extend my heartfelt thanks to the students, their families and supporters for another incredible year.