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Bring on the Music Man!


Opinion

After an inspirational Royal Albert Hall concert by a group of musicians with learning disabilities, Mary-Ann Connolly asks why the same can’t happen here.

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One man and a small local Mencap organisation can fill the Royal Albert Hall on a Monday night with 200 learning disabled musicians, a volunteer 59-piece symphony orchestra and eight community choirs. Why can’t this happen at the Usher Hall in Scotland? Let me tell you why it should…

In 1999, an inspirational young deputy headteacher called David Stanley started to teach a young man with Down’s syndrome who insisted he play the Twelve Days of Christmas over again until the middle of July. Since then a single student has turned into many differently-abled musicians all over the UK through The Music Man Project, a project which brings music education, learning, enjoyment and opportunity to local community hubs, including Bangalore, Africa and, shortly, Nepal, where music education for the learning disabled is unheard of.

Whilst music and the arts are being downgraded in formal education, a service like this is a lesson to us all. The UK is celebrated worldwide for its music and arts expertise. Why are countries like China building new Opera Houses? Why are our dance and ballet companies sought after worldwide? Which country delivered the most inspirational Olympic ceremonies on record with offers to our technical teams to go to Rio or Japan? We are really, really, really good at this stuff. Our orchestras tour, our musical theatre is performed worldwide, our theatres and festivals are the biggest and the best and a mainstay of our economy.

We know how the Edinburgh Festival and the Fringe enhance lives in so many ways. Scotland is a vibrant place despite the dreary politicians in Westminster thinking otherwise. On a personal level, since relocating to the Highlands I have discovered a thriving musical culture of excellence and inspiration, an appetite for good work and amazing support for all aspects of the arts.

But hang on, there is one thing missing! Where are those who do not necessarily fit the typical image of a performer? Can people of all ages with various learning disabilities really make good music? Would I pay to see them perform? Well, the packed audience at the Royal Albert Hall proved that yes, people would. Of course, families and friends were there, but also tourists and regular audiences who came to see a good show.  

Our artistic education is now reliant solely on individuals who know how important the arts and music are, not purely just as entertainment, but as the bedrock of a civilised society. Music develops that instinct that lies within us all, it instills confidence, self esteem and is a vehicle for joy and emotional response.  So why is its importance being downgraded by the great and good who do not have vision or faith?

Fear not folks. We are creative people and a few of us still soldier on. Schools still have music services, albeit on a tight budget. We still have parents who understand that children need music, dance and drama despite exams in boring subjects like maths.

But wait a minute! Isn’t music mathematical? Oh yes. Children who are good at maths excel at playing instruments. Hey, and don’t you need to count to be able to dance and understand spatial awareness? Oh yes, it also makes you fitter and healthier. And doesn’t art improve your motor skills? Oh, I guess it is good for your soul and that improves your mental health. What a revelation.

So where does the Music Man project fit into all this and what about Scottish life?

Talented musicians and teachers firstly need to know about this. One man and a small organisation can only do so much. With Music Man projects now spreading through the home counties, the message needs to be spread further north. Local organisations need to be aware of the benefits of this ground-breaking project which caters for anyone with any kind of learning or physical disability. Music Man students range from age 3 to age 75. The guiding principles are enjoyment, education and performance. They are respected as musicians with a sense of purpose, pride, meaning and identity within their community.

Barriers to opportunity remain a real problem in the arts, falling far behind what has been achieved by the Paralympic movement in sport. It can be as limiting as lack of wheelchair access and the understanding that exceptions should be made for people living in exceptional circumstances for them to enjoy the equal opportunities they deserve. Hurrah! Who doesn’t want to watch an entertaining and uplifting performance featuring people who have overcome incredible challenges just to be there? The shows at the London Palladium and the Royal Albert Hall both were a great night out and, sorry folks, better than the vapid false talent competitions on Saturday night TV.

So, this whoosie southerner is saying to all musicians and teachers, “Scotland get your act together!” Kilmarnock Salvation Army now have a centre. There are loads of teaching resources, ideas, downloadable music and inspiration on the Music Man website. Let’s find another maverick with vision and enthusiasm to make this happen. Book your place at the Usher Hall in 2020! Now.

Mary-Ann Connolly is a patron of the Music Man Project and Chairperson of StrathFest – The Badenoch and Strathspey Music Festival


Mary-Ann has had a very long and varied career in show business. Her professional journey has taken her from west end dancer and TV actress to air stewardess, business woman, secondary school teacher, cultural project officer, founding a site specific theatre company to award winning producer. Amazingly she still enjoys sitting in the stalls and enjoying a good show.

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