David Stanley, a former Deputy Head teacher at a Performing Arts Specialist Secondary School and now director of the Music Man Project, was inspired after teaching his friend Tony, who has Downs Syndrome how to play ‘I am the Music Man’. In 2001 David started the Southend Mencap Music School, running a series of workshops and classes for Special Needs adults and children, inspiring them to learn through music. In 2012 David gave up his teaching job and made the “Music Man Project” his number one commitment. Since then, the Project has expanded to Essex, Suffolk, Sussex, Kent, Hampshire, Bristol, Lincolnshire, Scotland and following funded learning and research trips, led by David and his colleagues, they also opened centres in South Africa and India. As their website says, ‘The Music Man Project’ nurtures their innate musicality, delivering education, enjoyment and performances through the teaching of original music at special schools, colleges, care homes, weekly music schools and daily adult classes in the community.’
David Stanley has since written and conducted shows for the children at a multitude of iconic venues, such as the London Palladium and events, such as the London Marathon throughout the UK. When the ‘Music Man Project’ was set up he promised his music students that one day they would get to perform at the Royal Albert Hall and as April 15th 2019 proved, this is exactly what he did.
As the choir, orchestra, teachers and pupils filled the stage of the Royal Albert Hall and the parents took over the auditorium with sheer pride on their faces, the night was an overwhelming spectacle. Arranged so that everyone would have a part to play and everyone’s needs and abilities were met, the piano played by David himself accompanied an incredibly polished performance by his fantastic students. Music written for the project itself, showcased the teams fantastic work, but also the talent of the pupils.
The second half of the show took the audience on a trip into space, as the stage replicated a spaceship, saving all the humans from a futuristic earth that had been destroyed through global warming. What was a delight to see, were the teachers who got fully stuck in; with Jenny Hitchcock, one of the programme’s directors, dressed up as space man and leading the performers in an enthusiastic performance of their Space musical. Her passion for what she did, these performers and the music as a whole, was evident from the stage as there was not one performer that did not have an ear-to-ear smile. Watching the teacher and student interaction, proved how important and meaningful the student-teacher relationship is for the performers. These people truly loved their teachers; and their teachers were incredibly passionate about both the project and their students.
The Project itself has seen entire networks being built, friends being made and Guinness World Records being broken (for the largest ever Triangle ensemble). Music theory, instruments, lyrics and rhythms are learnt and the students get to express themselves through the medium of music; a great healer and therapy for all.
One of the project’s younger students,16 year-old Madi, who uses a communication device that she controls with her eyes, hasn’t missed a session since she joined the project 8 years ago. Madi’s mum Sally explained: ‘they teach you, so it’s not all about going along and having a sing. You bang on the drum and you work out what are quavers and semi-quavers. They questioned the students on it and using Madi’s communicator, she answered and got it right. That’s when the music man project realised, that with the aid of Madi’s communicator, she was really able to express herself.’ She then got a part in their initial ‘Peace and Hope’ where her lines were spoken rather than sung. Madi’s solo in the Royal Albert Hall, saw all eyes on her as she was given the part of the ‘translator’ in the standout performance, echoing her lines throughout the full auditorium.
Madi finds her mum’s singing embarrassing but loves her friends. She also really loves Jenny and David. Everything Madi said, exemplified the ‘Music Man Project’ as a hub of creativity, freedom and expression, as well as a place of learning. The shows they put on at some of the country’s biggest stages, boost confidence and incites pride in the minds of these performers, at the same time as helping them break stereotypes.
“Mousetrap” is another organisation, which uses theatre as a tool for working with special needs people by helping them develop their social skills and boosting their confidence with trips to the theatre and workshops in schools. It strives to create joy as well as teaching valuable life skills.
Since the 1950s an organisation, called ‘Nordoff Robbins’, has been developing music therapy for people with special needs. Catering for the individual needs of each person, creates an understanding of how music therapy can help them engage with other people and with the music.
Mousetrap website: www.mousetrap.org.uk
Nordoff Robbins website: www.nordoff-robbins.org.uk
For more information about the Music Man Project visit: www.themusicmanproject.com/
Photo above: Madi, Music Man Project Student