Performing at the London Palladium
Music for everyone
Everyone has music in them, and the Music Man Project is taking out this message, staging concerts and offering lessons at home and abroad. Natalie Bradford tunes up
Adults and children with learning disabilities at home and abroad are learning music and performing in well-known venues, thanks to what started out as a small, local project .
The Music Man Project (MMP), the UK’s first music education service for people with learning disabilities, runs classes six days a week in various locations throughout the UK and overseas. It has a not-for-profit franchise model, and is supported by Southend Mencap.
It started in Southend in Essex and was the innovative vision of former deputy head teacher and musician David Stanley.
MMP developed as a result of a growing demand from parents and families for musical opportunities for people with learning disabilities. The main MMP ethos is that there is innate musicality in everyone and, through accessing this, much can be achieved on a variety of levels.
We aim to provide education, performance and fun in a highly supportive environment that is open to anybody with a learning disability. This is through the teaching of originally composed repertoire at: special schools and colleges; care homes; the Saturday Music School; weekly lessons for adults; and workshops in locations including the Royal College of Music in London.
The Saturday Music School was set up back in 2001 for a small group of young adults with learning disabilities. The sessions grew in popularity and it quickly became apparent that it was not sufficient to meet the huge demand for musical opportunities of this type.
So, in 2012, the Saturday Music School started running six days a week Ð and this was the start of today’s specialist full-time music education service.
Since its expansion in 2012, MMP groups have been established in Essex, Kent, Suffolk, East Sussex, Hampshire, Lincolnshire and Bristol, as well as overseas in Sizanani in South Africa and Bangalore in India.
Workshops and concerts have taken place in West Sussex, Surrey, Gloucestershire, Tyne and Wear, Cheshire, Lancashire and Northern Ireland.
Several more MMP groups are in the pipeline which we are visiting as time allows. One of my roles is to help these new groups. We offer training for staff and ongoing support and mentoring for any group wishing to join the MMP community.
MMP aims to provide the same musical opportunities to those with learning disabilities as those experienced by aspiring musicians without learning disabilities – although teaching styles and time frames may differ to suit individual needs. We provide high-level tuition by highly qualified musicians with special educational needs teaching experience.
Singing, a variety of musical instruments, including drum kits, percussion, African drums, ukuleles, glockenspiels and hand bells, originally composed repertoire and performance opportunities are standard parts of the MMP curriculum. Performances can be seen at a variety of venues, including prestigious concert halls, in London and further afield.
Our most recent large-scale production, Music is Magic at the London Palladium, played to a sell-out audience of over 2,000 people, including HRH the Countess of Wessex. More than 200 students with learning disabilities from around the UK performed and a Guinness World Record for the largest ever triangle ensemble, made up of 1,521 people, was set.
I have first-hand experience of setting up centres and was the first tutor to venture outside Southend to organise an MMP group in a small town called Maldon on the Essex coast.
MMP Maldon is now a well-established group of students, who are accomplished musicians and confident performers. They have performed widely, both with the Southend students and on their own. MMP Maldon has also joined with other MMP centres for larger shows.
It has been heartwarming to see how music has transformed people, some of whom have never taken part in a concert before, let alone stood on the stage at the London Palladium as a performer.
Two of the most exciting venues I have been directly involved with have been South Africa and India – it was amazing to see how music can cross barriers and reach directly into the personal experiences of those taking part, audience members and musicians alike.
Our most recent overseas trip took place last summer to Bangalore in India. This was a big challenge as we faced language barriers, cultural differences, extreme poverty and more.
We need not have been concerned. We were warmly welcomed by schools and homes for adults. Staff were receptive to our teaching and we have kept in regular contact. There is now a young, dynamic musical coordinator in Bangalore who has started organising at least three groups since our visit.
One touching comment was that the music session was ‘the most joyous time we have ever had. We couldn’t believe how much they have opened up when they have spent their whole life being told to be quiet.’
Music really does have the power to enhance lives and a positive impact on those with opportunities to experience it.
Music Man performers who will appear at the Royal Albert Hall
Our performances, whether at the Royal Albert Hall or a local nursing home, aim to educate wider society about the journey towards equality of opportunity for people with learning disabilities. Our first show at the London Palladium in 2015, included the musical From the Asylum to the Palladium, which followed the journey from the harrowing days of the institution to where we are today – and showed how far we still have to go. As it was acted by people with learning disabilities, you can imagine how powerful this message was.
Through inspirational performances such as this, we are challenging common misconceptions about what people with learning disabilities can or cannot do. We have only the highest aspirations about what our performers can achieve – first and foremost, they are musicians.
MMP has won many awards for its unique work. It was deemed ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, which commented on the exceptional opportunities it provides. The Royal College of Music has described our work as ‘truly inspiring … the power of music to bring everyone together was very apparent’. It has been praised by previous and current prime ministers. For its pioneering work, MMP reached the finals of the Music Teachers Award for Excellence twice in the past three years and won the 2016 Kids Count Inspiration Best Creative Contribution award.
More importantly, MMP makes a real difference to people’s lives. It develops the musical instinct that lies within us all to instil confidence and self-esteem, providing enjoyment and a much-needed opportunity for emotional expression.
MMP is supporting PhD research at the Royal College of Music on the wellbeing benefits of music participation for people with learning disabilities. Much anecdotal evidence shows the wide-reaching positive effects of music but there is a serious lack of empirical evidence. This pioneering study will offer a valuable insight into this specialist area.
MMP is excited to be performing at the Royal Albert Hall on 15 April. This looks set to be an amazing experience for both performers and audience and is a dream come true for everybody involved. Rehearsals have been under way for well over a year.
This will be a truly remarkable event and not just for those with learning disabilities or with an interest in the field. Our biggest adventure, it will be a wonderful evening of music making of the highest quality. Our students show rare levels of commitment and determination.
We would love to see you there to share in this joyous occasion, which marks another landmark in the journey of equality for people with learning disabilities.
Book tickets for the 15 April concert at the Royal Albert Hall online box office at http://tinyurl.com/y9vhs2em
Natalie Bradford is a doctoral candidate at the Royal College of Music and is regional director and academic adviser at the Music Man Project