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  • Writer's pictureDavid Stanley

Travel to Learn, Return to Inspire: What next?

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

During my 2019 Churchill Fellowship to New York I met extraordinary reformers, leaders, teachers, carers, volunteers and individuals with disabilities. My 4-week journey took me to the Salvation Army Greater New York Division, AHRC’s ‘Our Broadway’ group, Tobii Dynavox (manufacturer of assistive communication devices), Pathway Special School, Manhattan Star Academy, Daniel’s Music Foundation, Manhattan School of Music, Kean University, District 75 (Department of Education for Special Needs), the British Consulate, Carnegie Hall, Broadway’s Town Hall and City Centre Theatre, a Broadway producer, the United Nations and Ellis Island, where disabled immigrants were labelled and sent back home. I gave numerous presentations about the Music Man Project and delivered music workshops to care homes from Brooklyn to the Bronx. I was welcomed with kindness and encouragement and was delighted to establish The Music Man Project New York during my visit.

The motto of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust is “Travel to Learn, Return to Inspire”. The foreign research is only half of the journey. There is no point travelling to learn without returning to inspire. There is no point returning to inspire without it leading to change.

Here is a summary of what I have learnt, where I have learnt it, and what we must do to make the Fellowship worthwhile for the whole of the UK. The use of the imperative is deliberate. This section of society has been left behind far too long because they can’t change their predicament by themselves. They also have a shorter life expectancy than the rest of society and their window to opportunity is limited by funding and unpredictable quality of care at any given time. As their families die out, they become deeply isolated and helpless.

1. Music education is a right, not a privilege (Daniel’s Music Foundation). Underpinned by teamwork, discipline and commitment, special needs music education accesses innate musicality, creativity, expression and memory. Studies at Keane University in the USA and the Royal College of Music in the UK demonstrate life-changing impact on self-esteem, loneliness, dementia, mental and physical health. Life-long music education must be accessible for more people with learning disabilities across the UK. 1.5 million people will be healthier and more prepared for employment, saving the NHS and welfare state millions of pounds every year.

2. Adaptive instruments help musicians with the most complex needs play the same, authentic musical instruments as their peers (International Academy of Hope). Adaptive instruments must be sourced, purchased and supplied to individuals, their families and music educators across the UK.

3. Assistive communication devices help non-verbal musicians to communicate and perform (Manhattan Star Academy). Assistive communication devices must be provided more widely across the UK and showcased at the world’s most prestigious performance platforms. Partnerships between manufacturers (such as Tobii Dynavox) and SEN music providers (such as The Music Man Project UK) must lead the way in giving people a voice and a platform to shine.

4. Collaborations between Further Education music providers and disability organisations provide leaders, role-models and resources for accessible music learning. They unearth the next generation of teachers and educate mainstream society through research and joint performances (Manhattan School of Music and Kean University). Formal partnerships at an organisational level must be established between the disabled community and mainstream schools, Further and Higher Education providers.

5. A purpose-built specialist music facility (‘conservatory for Special Needs’) significantly improves the resources, quality, scope and value of music education for people with learning disabilities. It provides a physical headquarters for training, research, fundraising and community outreach. It signals longevity and permanence in which potential corporate and private funders can have confidence (Daniel’s Music Foundation). Funding and locations for purpose-built special needs music education centres must be found in the UK.

6. Diversity awareness programmes challenge ignorance and attract corporate investment through community engagement. Training sessions, volunteering and performances raise the profile of special needs music providers and the achievements of their students, and help people overcome their fear of communicating with the disabled community (Daniel’s Music Foundation). There must be more diversity awareness and outreach programmes for all sections of society across the UK.

7. Musicians with different specialisms increase learning opportunities and lead to new collaborations, instruments, technologies and funding streams. Students and staff are reinvigorated by different teaching styles, unexplored musical genres and new performance opportunities (AHRC’s ‘Our Broadway’ and Daniel’s Music Foundation). The best musicians from around the UK must be invited to obverse, volunteer, rehearse, teach and perform alongside musicians with learning disabilities. As well as having fun, it is their chance to learn about diversity and ‘give back’ to society.

8. Adapted music notation enables people with learning disabilities to play a greater variety of musical instruments. It begins the important process towards reading music and transforms the typical SEN ensemble beyond tuned and untuned percussion. It provides greater challenge and independence for more able musicians with special needs (Kean University). Adapted music notation for musicians with learning disabilities must be produced and made available for a range of musical instruments.

9. Improvisation and free composition teach spontaneity and risk taking. This makes learning -disabled musicians more confident and independent (Kean University). As well as performing from memory and musical notation, they must be given structures within which to explore their ideas without limitation. Student’s contributions must be celebrated, developed and incorporated into the overall creative process.

10. Recording equipment captures personal stories, musical achievements, rehearsals and performances (AHRC’s ‘Our Broadway’, Daniel’s Music Foundation). It provides a permanent record of achievement for families and hope for future generations. Portable recording studios must be sourced, purchased and distributed to special needs music providers. Teachers will be trained to use the equipment and encouraged to produce albums and podcasts. They will contribute their recordings to a brand-new national online audio archive.

11. The world’s most influential individuals and organisations are responsible for improving the plight of learning-disabled people across the globe, from maltreatment and neglect to community care and opportunity. They must exemplify understanding and awareness, and use their eminence to address prejudice, ignorance and inequality still faced by the learning-disabled community today (United Nations). Musicians can influence world leaders through performance, by presenting their story and campaigning for change at the world’s most prestigious platforms. A contingent of musicians with learning disabilities must present to business, political and religious leaders, and to the Assembly of the United Nations.

12. Partnerships with the Salvation Army present unrivalled opportunity to support music education for adults with learning disabilities in the community (Salvation Army Greater New York Division). The church has a long musical tradition, excellent facilities and resources, and a charitable mission to meet human needs in God’s name without discrimination. Successful partnerships have already been established between the Music Man Project and the Salvation Army in the UK and the USA. The Music Man Project must now offer its not-for-profit music education service to the remaining 129 countries in which the Salvation Army works.

13. Public performances give music education relevance and purpose. There is little value in any of the recommendations above unless musicians with learning disabilities have a platform to perform. Whether a school assembly, national sporting event, the iconic Royal Albert Hall or Broadway, performance is the indisputable evidence that investment in disabled people changes their lives in more ways than any other section of society (Daniel’s Music Foundation, Kean/AIU partnership and AHRC’s ‘Our Broadway’). The Music Man Project’s first musical in the West End was called From the Asylum to the Palladium. Isolation to opportunity is a universal story of a neglected people across the globe (Ellis Island). Like physical access to buildings, toilets, education and employment, barriers to opportunity in the Arts must now be broken down so musicians with disabilities can tell their story to the biggest audiences possible at the world’s most prestigious venues (which can cost up to £100,000 per day). For one day per year, one London concert venue and/or West End theatre should open their doors to performers with learning disabilities for free. This does not mean an accessible performance for a disabled audience. It means making the venue free and accessible for disabled performers. There are 38 theatres in the West End so each venue would only need to provide this once every 38 years. One day every 38 years to make a lifetime’s difference to a whole society…

Read the final Churchill Fellowship report here.

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