Until this year, The Music Man Project’s international visits were restricted to tutoring new students overseas. Most were self-funded, with dedicated volunteers paying for their own travel or thanks to generous sponsorship from friends and family. Successful trips to South Africa, India, Nepal and the Philippines enabled us to reach disabled communities thousands of miles away thanks to connections with local charities, schools or churches. The visits helped us appreciate the need for accessible music on a global scale, particularly in countries where attitudes to disability are very different to our own. The exception was my research visit to New York in 2019, where I was able to learn from provision in America and make recommendations based on my findings to disability arts providers across the UK - all thanks to the Churchill Fellowship.
I often pondered the big question: Could we take Music Man Project students on these global adventures? Then I met the TEAM LEWIS Foundation.
TEAM LEWIS have stood shoulder to shoulder with The Music Man Project ever since Sir David Amess was murdered. Sir David's friend and fellow MP, Penny Mordaunt, introduced me to the global marketing company in October 2021. I was enchanted by their big ideas and promises. It matched my own attitudes of high expectation and self-belief. CEO Chris Lewis was determined that something good would come out of such a horrifying tragedy. He considered how he could counter such hate and gave us strength to move forward with hope, honouring the memory of our greatest champion.
TEAM LEWIS were true to their word. They give us two priceless gifts: a platform to shine and a story to tell. They brokered our partnership with the Royal Marines which resulted in a top 10 hit and global media coverage for our joint Christmas single ‘Music is Magic’. Rather than relying on high-profile, one-off concerts and events, we now have sustained momentum thanks to a team of dedicated professionals who believe in our cause. Thanks to TEAM LEWIS, millions of people know who we are, what we stand for and what we want to achieve.
The invitation to perform in San Diego followed our successful corporate workshop in London in the Summer of 2022. The TEAM LEWIS conference at Tate Britain proved that our musicians could engage private sector professionals with no previous experience of accessible music-making or disability. The energy in the room was electric as our students directed them to sing, sign, play and dance along to our music. We were the highlight of the conference for a global staff of over 200 people who had come to London for a week in July.
Repeating the feat at their American head office in San Diego was a different prospect. Would the parents agree? Who would we choose? How would they cope with the travel? Could we afford the time away? When considering these questions, I returned again and again to those famous words of my friend, Sir David Amess in 2019:
“They conquered the London Palladium! They conquered the Royal Albert Hall! Now they will go to Broadway!”
There was no question. Our students must not miss this incredible opportunity. They must show what they can do no matter where in the world they are. The invitation was even more irresistible when we learned that our new friends, His Majesty’s Band of The Royal Marines, were also invited and we would perform ‘Music is Magic’ together on board the iconic Aircraft Carrier, the USS Midway. This was another important step in our ground-breaking partnership. The trip was courtesy of TEAM LEWIS and was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for students, parents and The Music Man alike.
Given the relatively short notice, the unknowns around travel and the limited numbers, I turned to the Music Man Project UK Student Ambassadors for help. Eight students represented our international Music Man Project family in San Diego. They were drummer, Dan, Wendy Woo, DJ Phil, Claire, Sam M, Sam H, Graeme and our maestro, Daniel. These musicians had established our strong relationship with both TEAM LEWIS and the Royal Marines throughout 2022. They recorded the joint Christmas single, delivered workshops to over 12,000 school children and they were responsible for the outstanding corporate workshop for TEAM LEWIS in London.
This was perfect preparation for San Diego where we would be asked to deliver a corporate workshop, visit a school, perform at a children's hospital and sing 'Music is Magic' with the Royal Marines.
As the ambassadors had such a busy lead up to Christmas promoting our single, I thought it appropriate to reveal the news as a special festive surprise. I didn’t want to upset those who hadn’t been chosen and feared they might dwell on their disappointment all over Christmas. I therefore informed Southend Mencap months in advance rather than make the visit public. On 21st December, after all the hard work and planning with TEAM LEWIS, the Royal Marines, Southend Mencap and the parents, I finally revealed the exciting news to the chosen ambassadors on a Zoom call.
There were other obstacles to overcome which became valuable lessons for our ambitions to reach Broadway, such as moving through the airport with special needs priority access, hiring the right instruments, communication in America, food and drink, and balancing leisure, rest and performance commitments. The help of an administrator from TEAM LEWIS was particularly useful. Amber Ashby was our excellent chaperone for the entire trip. She organised our flights, accommodation, coaches, leisure activities and venues. She was always available to answer questions and provide reassurance.
Additionally, on TEAM LEWIS advice, I asked two parents to assist with the planning and preparations from our side. This was extremely useful and took a lot of the burden away from me. Thank you, Sue and Karen!
Unsurprisingly, the Music Man Project Ambassadors coped brilliantly with the demands of our San Diego adventure. They showed that The Music Man Project can travel all that way and still enthral audiences with the magic of their music. Whether on board an aircraft carrier, in a school, at a hospital or corporate event, they left a trail of joy and inspiration wherever they went.
As a Disability and Access Ambassador, I’m always watchful for the treatment of people with learning disabilities in society. In San Diego I witnessed nothing but kindness and respect for our group. In fact, they were met with admiration and given celebrity-like status. The success of the promotion around the Christmas single meant that these ambassadors were now recognisable faces among all of TEAM LEWIS staff and every member of the Royal Marines Band. They were stopped in lifts and the hotel lobby with such warm words as “we are so lucky to be here with you” and “it's amazing what you do, thank you for letting us share in this moment”.
After several days of sight-seeing, swimming and eating (!), the students were eager to get on with what they were there for – performing! One thing was certain: as soon as the music played, our stars shrugged off any tiredness and shone as brightly as ever. They could have been anywhere.
We had four musical commitments: a corporate workshop for TEAM LEWIS, a performance of ‘Music is Magic’ on board the USS Midway, a local High School workshop and a joint concert with the Royal Marines at a local children’s hospital. All the events were a resounding success, creating unique and special memories for our students and their audiences.
TEAM LEWIS Workshop at the Guggenheim Theatre
The 2-hour workshop for TEAM LEWIS was a fitting opening to our schedule. As with the London event, our musicians delighted the participants with their typically entertaining combination of musicality and humour. As well as enjoying the usual Music Man classics like ‘High Low Middle’ and ‘The Ukularmy’, they were particularly moved by our song ‘Have You Ever Stopped to Think?’ which chimed with the values of the TEAM LEWIS Foundation and their support of good causes around the world. Their reaction was a great boost to our students, some of whom who were still tired from the flight. Despite being over 5,000 miles away from Southend, it felt like they all came home as soon as they stepped foot on the stage.
'Music is Magic' on board the USS MIDWAY with His Majesty's Band of the Royal Marines
Performing on board such an iconic ship with such meaning and history for America sent chills down my spine. The black-tie event welcomed 300 guests to the ship, including Jim DiMatteo, ‘the real Maverick‘ who inspired the Top Gun movie. The evening was a celebration of 1000 causes that TEAM LEWIS Foundation have supported in just two years. We were in excellent company and I was proud to sit alongside Chris Lewis and his beautiful family for the meal. The ambassadors gave an outstanding performance of ‘Music is Magic’, accompanied by the Royal Marines under the Stars and Stripes of the American flag. They received their usual standing ovation.
The Academy of our Lady of Peace
The Academy of our Lady of Peace was the most picturesque school I’ve ever seen. It was more like a Mediterranean villa than a place of learning! However, beyond the beautiful flowers and stunning views it glowed with the finest teaching spaces, equipment and resources you could imagine. The pupils were polite and focused as they moved around the school's extensive grounds. In the bright Californian sunshine, the ambassadors entertained a hundred girls during their lunchbreak with a 30-minute programme. After two songs, the girls deserted their sandwiches, leapt up from the steps of the amphitheatre and joined in with the fun. Our musicians felt like rock stars as they led the young people through their dance moves!
Rady Children's Hospital
The hour-long concert in the grounds of Rady Children’s Hospital was a fitting way to conclude our musical tour of San Diego. Patients and families came to the windows to watch our performers below, and the concert was broadcast live on Instagram. As some very sick children watched on, our musicians brought them joy and hope through their music. I had an out of body experience when I glanced up to see 35 perfectly uniformed Royal Marines doing the tango, Gangnam-style, the Floss and the Can-Can with our students. So many smiles, so much laughter. This is the power of The Music Man Project, I thought.
Our trip to California was incredible, astonishing, overwhelming and inspirational. We will never be able to express our gratitude for the kindness and generosity of TEAM LEWIS CEO, Chris Lewis and TEAM LEWIS Foundation CEO, Samuel Dean. They, along with all their staff, will always be part of our great big musical family.
We also thank Major Ian Davis, Bandmaster of Royal Marine Band Lympstone. He and his fellow musicians were outstanding with our students and we look forward to performing with them again soon. We thank TEAM LEWIS, our patron, the Rt Hon. Penny Mordaunt MP and Lt Col Jason Burcham for creating this wonderful partnership between The Music Man Project and the best military musicians in the world.
Finally, I thank my directors and trustees at the Music Man Project. We were able to cover any additional costs associated with the trip, including paying Southend Mencap for the time we were away providing this unique opportunity for their students. Tutor fees, additional carer costs and lost student income were all covered to ensure the week away had minimal impact on the operation of the local Southend charity.
Our San Diego experience makes me recall the words of Chris Lewis himself:
“The cause is people who have difficulty learning. The effect though, is on those who have difficulty loving. The more complex our lives, the more love is relegated, commercialised, commoditised, diluted. Everywhere you go, the work you do and the team of people involved has the most extraordinary effect. It brings out real, unconditional, authentic, love. It grants them permission.”
San Diego 2023 was more than just a nice trip to California. Taking students so far away from home presented unforeseen challenges before, during and after the week away. However, we cherished every moment and the feedback from our visit was incredibly positive. It began a new chapter in our 20+ year history - the launch of The Music Man Project Global Ambassadors!
Music Man Project students are not just role models for their communities. They’re not just ambassadors for the UK. They’re world leaders whose music can connect a once forgotten and still largely misunderstood international population of 650 million people.
They were the stars of San Diego and I was deeply honoured to be a part of their journey.
Could we take Music Man Project students with us on these global adventures?
Thanks to San Diego, the answer is a resounding yes! Thanks to San Diego, we’re ready for Broadway. Wouldn’t Sir David be proud of that...
View more photos on the San Diego Flickr Album here.