7 September 2023

The Music Man Project: Musical momentum

Ivan Radford

A photo shows three people with ukuleles performing as part of the Music Man Project.

Ivan Radford charts the growing ministry of the Music Man Project and The Salvation Army.

‘Music is magic./ It opens up your heart.’ If you recognise those words, you’ve heard the heart-warming impact of the Music Man Project. And many people who have heard it have gone on to start Music Man Project groups where they are.

The pioneering initiative provides a confidence-boosting music education service for people with learning disabilities and their carers. First started by David Stanley in 2000, it became a key partner for The Salvation Army in 2017, aligning with the Movement’s value of respect and welcoming everyone with equal dignity and valuing their diversity.

There are currently five active Music Man Projects within the Army in this territory, including Lincolnshire, run by Boston Corps, Lancashire, run by Clitheroe Corps, West Sussex, run by Bognor Regis Corps, Scotland, run by the George Steven Community Hub, and Hampshire, run by Hedge End Corps.

Elsewhere, Gillingham’s hall is used by Kent’s Music Man Project and Leigh-on-Sea’s building is used by the Essex group.

‘It’s not just about people coming together to play music,’ explains Chris Stringer (THQ). ‘There are real mission opportunities and opportunities to reach out to people society tends to overlook. It’s about bringing opportunities for people to enjoy music, but also bringing them into contact with the Army and exploring faith and spirituality.’

As a result of participating in the groups, people have gone on to attend worship on Sundays and some have become adherents and soldiers. In Gillingham, the Music Man Project has led to the formation of a new Enabled group.

Workshops have been held at Caterham Corps and Ipswich Priory Centre in recent years, and the musical momentum continues to build: workshops are also lined up at Balham in September and at Bridgwater in October, with a view to starting a group next year. A full group is also starting at Skegness Corps from September.

‘I suspect we’d have a lot more groups if we hadn’t been held up for two years by the Covid-19 pandemic,’ reflects Chris. ‘But it’s still growing.’

It’s testament to the ministry of the Army groups that this growth tends to happen organically, as people who encounter the Music Man Project are inspired by its message – and by the Army’s mission to be inclusive and welcoming as it works to bring fullness of life with Jesus to all.

Dan Elson, mission outreach partner for Music and Creative Arts, who is part of the team delivering the sessions at Clitheroe, says: ‘Music is a great way to communicate and can speak to the very heart of who we are in a way that goes beyond words. At our Music Man Project groups in other parts of the country we have seen people who are non-verbal find a new way of expressing themselves, people who were socially isolated gain confidence and people who in the past have experienced all kinds of barriers finding opportunities to develop relationships through the power of music.’

A photo shows a large group of members of the Music Man Project cheering at the camera.

The sessions include singing and Makaton signing as well as playing instruments. But each group is completely unique, as are the people who attend.

‘There’s a real mixed bag,’ enthuses Disability Engagement Adviser Jo-Anne Graham (THQ). ‘In Boston, they do a summer and winter show. In Scotland, they do live gigs. It’s dependent on the opportunities they have in the area, who’s leading the sessions, what ideas and background they have. And there’s no fixed format to a session: it’s flexible and unique to the people who attend.’

Any corps can start their own Music Man Project group. They typically start with a workshop with David Stanley so people can see what it’s like. On the Music Man Project website, a teaching repertoire is available, along with all the music and Makaton signs. While that means people can self-teach, advice is available over Zoom and Chris, Jo-Anne and the Enabled team are regularly going to people who are interested and meeting with them to talk through options and provide support – including, for example, instruments, such as woodblocks, tambourines, ukuleles and triangles.

‘The groups are usually for adults, but it could easily be set up for children’s groups as well,’ says Chris. ‘It’s fully accessible for everyone. The group at Bognor Regis, for example, is for all ages.’

On 8 April 2024, the Army will be taking a number of its Music Man Project groups to the Royal Albert Hall to take part in a Music Is Magic concert. The last one took place there in 2019 and will again see hundreds of people joining together in music, along with special guest Michael Ball and the Band of His Majesty’s Royal Marines.

‘The groups are all learning new songs,’ teases Chris, ‘but there’ll be some of the old favourites there.

‘The Hampshire group were at the Royal Albert Hall last time, so performing there is like second nature to them. For others, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

‘We had about 60 people at a Bognor Regis session, but at the Royal Albert Hall you’ll see 250 people with learning disabilities on that stage and it does just blow you away.’

With tickets already selling for the concert, the stage is set for that musical momentum to keep on growing.

  • Are you interested in starting up a Music Man Project group where you are? Email the Enabled team at enabled@salvationarmy.org.uk for information, advice and support.

Written by

A photo of Ivan Radford.

Ivan Radford

Managing Editor

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