From the Asylum to the Palladium – The Music Man Project

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additional needs, down syndrome, down's syndrome, equality, inclusion, music, special needs

Seb and I spent a wonderful afternoon yesterday with David Stanley, Founder and Director of the MusicMan Project, and Jenny Hitchcock, the project’s Regional Director.

Based in the place I still call “home”, The Music Man Project is run by Southend Mencap and Seb and I are incredibly proud to be patrons. David and Jenny’s passion for what they do, and for the opportunities it offers to people with learning difficulties, is so abundant – and infectious.

Speaking to David about his original motivation to head the project was an inspiration. It reinforced everything I already feel about inclusion – that our children are our best tools to change attitudes, by being included, being seen and being given a chance. A chance to shine and not be defined by a condition or disability.

When David was 18, he signed up to a befriending scheme, set up to offer those with learning disabilities some supported independence. The boy he supported was a young man with Down’s syndrome. David accompanied him to swimming, to the gym and other typical activities and once he got to know him well, he started to give him piano lessons. David immediately saw the positive effect the lessons had and how it filtered into other parts of the young boys life – he had taken a particular liking for learning Christmas Carols and David found him counting reps in the gym to the 5 Days of Christmas! The music had helped with communication and counting as well as being something he enjoyed, boosted his confidence and self esteem.

As well as being a full time Deputy Head and music teacher at a mainstream secondary school, David went on to do one-off workshops for people with special needs and it was at a conference titled “A Brighter Future” that David was first inspired by, and met, Joe Doroado.

Having arrived from Spain without a single word of English, Mr Dorado had begun life sweeping the floors of a large psychiatric hospital where he witnessed first hand the appalling conditions of the collective “patients” – the mentally ill, single mothers, homosexuals, the learning and physically disabled and even poorly behaved “different” children who had been hospitalised. He challenged why the patients had no underwear of their own, no possessions or privacy.

Such was his passion to fight for better treatment, Mr Dorado went on to become the President of Southend’s Mencap and he continued to champion for equality and better treatment for those with learning disabilities.

At this chance meeting, David had put his hand up to tell Mr Dorado that he was thinking of starting a music school for people with learning difficulties…..and Mr Dorado just happened to be looking to start one up! David took a huge leap of faith and left his secure job as a Deputy Head Teacher and, funded by Southend Mencap, has set up the Music Man Project.

The Project to date has been a huge success, with classes running 6 days a week, and starting to roll out to other locations in Essex, and hopefully nationwide. It caters for children between the ages of 3 to 70 with learning disabilities and David, who believes every single person on earth has an instinctive musicality, has seen the profound and positive effects of the project on those taking part.

He insists that the Music Man is about teaching music and not about therapy, although the therapeutic benefits are a welcome side effect. His workshops are curriculum based and he feels passionately that his students deserve to be taught by professional musicians, such as himself and Jenny. He also says that ‘disability’ is irrelevant. He never asks his students what their “conditions” or “disabilities” are – he just teaches music.

It is clear too that David isn’t just a music teacher. He has a huge empathy for his students and finds his work incredibly rewarding. Music isn’t just about notes, it is about rhythmn, timing, counting, communication, confidence. “Every single person in the Music Man Project is as important as the next” he says. “The bang of the cymbal at the end of a piece is just as important as the more detailed music in the middle. This makes every participant equal, regardless of their level or ability. If you put lots of people together, with instruments, they become an orchestra”.

So, what is Music is Magic? Music is Magic at the London Palladium on June 21st will showcase the talents and creative passion of hundreds of children and adults from the Music Man Project. The production will see performers entertain, inspire and no doubt move audiences to tears.

And as a major tribute to the pioneering Mr Dorado, the late President of Southend Mencap, the performance will feature a world premiere of a new musical called “From the asylum to the Palladium”.

Written by David, with help and input from Jenny, the performance will be uncomfortable to watch at times, as the students themselves tell the journey of their own people who were historically shut away in large psychiatric hospitals, along side anyone else who was “different”. The true horror of many of these institutions is only just emerging, where heavy sedation, electric shocks and lobotomy were common treatment for patients. However, the journey from tragedy to opportunity, from patients in the asylum to performers at the Palladium, is truly remarkable and testament to the courage of the people themselves and their families……

………as well as the pioneers, like Mr Dorado, David, Jenny and their team, who passionately battle for a brighter future and opportunity for all.

(Seb and I are so, so proud to be patrons of this incredible project. Please, if you can, show your support and come and see the show at The Palladium on 21st June. The show deserves to be seen and a successful sell out will allow the show to tour – who knows, next stop The Albert Hall…..)

You can buy tickets here:

and find out more about this exciting project here:

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