Blog: Music is magic for people with a learning disability

Published: 1 Apr 2019

Author: David Stanley
Blog: Music is magic for people with a learning disability

On 15 April, 200 musicians with a learning disability will perform a spectacular, life-changing concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. They will be supported by a symphony orchestra, massed choirs and celebrity guests. It will be the UK’s largest ever celebration of learning-disabled musicianship.

I’ve organised this concert, called Music is Magic, because I believe these forgotten members of society should have the opportunity to perform music on the biggest stages. It’s a cause I’ve championed for the past 20 years. It’s so exciting to witness these musicians perform to thousands of people and show what it takes to overcome adversity. They educate, inspire and raise expectations.

I also teach music to people with learning disabilities. My teaching is the basis of PhD research at the Royal College of Music which has shown that making music can lower the risks of a person with a learning disability suffering from poor mental health, dementia and loneliness. By increasing confidence and giving a person the opportunity to develop a protective network of friends, involvement in making music can also make someone less likely to be the victim of a hate crime.

This research makes it clear that investment in music education for people with special educational needs can make a positive difference to their lives and also reduce the burden on our health service.

Video: Find out more about The Music Man Project

I’m so proud of the opportunities my organisation The Music Man Project has given to people with learning disabilities. With our help, an autistic child - who used to scream with fear when more than four people entered a room - has sung in front of 1,400 people at the London Palladium. A girl who was mute throughout her childhood sang on our charity single. One of our performers at the Royal Albert Hall will be a teenage girl whose only means of communicating is through a computer screen that tracks her eye movements and speaks the words and phrases she is looking at.

My students have performed twice in London’s West End, played to royalty, toured the UK, delivered seminars to the Royal College of Music and played a concert at the Royal College of Psychiatrists to mark World Mental Health Day. Yet only a few decades ago, people similar to these students were often hidden away in mental hospitals.

Below: David with drummer Daniel Camacho at the London Palladium, 2017 

David with drummer Daniel Camacho

Later this year, I will travel to New York on a Churchill Fellowship to explore different approaches to teaching, performance, funding and leadership. With the ideas I gather, I plan to lead further innovation in music education and offer new and exciting musical opportunities to the 1.5 million people with a learning disability in the UK.

‘Music is Magic at the Royal Albert Hall’ will be an unforgettable celebration of accessible music-making and a deeply touching experience for everyone who attends. The next time you see a person with a learning disability, don’t ask yourself what they need or what they can’t do. Ask yourself what they can teach you.

Top picture: David with performer Tony Pheasant at the London Palladium, 2015

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