As the London Symphony Orchestra helps to boost the provision of musical opportunities for young people with special needs across east London, we look at the MCF’s role and why former Lord Mayor Sir Andrew Parmley is lending his support

At LSO St Luke’s, an 18th-century Grade I listed church in London designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, it’s Make Music Day. The restored building is home to the expansive community and music education programme run by the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). Young people with learning difficulties or disabilities have come with their families to the centre in east London to explore different types of music-making. They play the drums, the violin and other instruments alongside musicians from the LSO, clearly enjoying the accessibility of the day and being able to share an activity specifically designed for them to take part in as a family – free of anxiety. 

Make Music Day is part of the LSO’s On Track Special Schools project, which encourages creative music-making, devising models for working and nurturing the talent of the teachers and young people. 

‘It’s great to have something that all of them as a family can come to – it’s not just about the young person who happens to have a learning disability,’ says David Nunn, project manager for LSO On Track. ‘For the family to have activities that they really feel are for them, that they can feel comfortable in, has been really significant.’

Through the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF), London Freemasons have awarded £100,000 to LSO On Track to help produce inclusive ensembles, which will enable young people with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) to develop their musical skills alongside young people without SEND, using a combination of assistive music technology and traditional and electronic instruments. Ensembles will come together in autumn 2019 for a major performance.

‘This particular project will involve LSO musicians and specialist workshop leaders visiting schools within the boroughs, delivering exploratory music-making workshops to the pupils,’ says MCF chief executive David Innes. ‘Pupils who show an interest or an aptitude will be able to have further sessions to develop new skills and explore new instruments, sounds and composition techniques. There will be the chance for them to develop and grow, culminating in a performance for friends and family.’

APPEAL FROM THE LORD MAYOR

The proposal to contribute to the LSO On Track Special Schools project was submitted to the MCF’s grant-making programme via the Lord Mayor’s Appeal charity on behalf of the outgoing Lord Mayor of London Sir Andrew Parmley, who was recognised with a knighthood in this year’s New Year Honours for his lifelong services to music, education and civic engagement.  

‘The LSO is the best orchestra in the world, and its outreach programme sees musicians working with young people, particularly those with learning difficulties. These young people, who wouldn’t ordinarily encounter professional musicians and real instruments, are able to have a go – composing and playing together and experiencing the joy that making music together can bring to a person,’ says Parmley, whose background is in music education. 

‘The MCF has seen the benefit of this work and dug deep to find £100,000. We’re so grateful to them. As I owe most of my life to music, it’s very important to me that a large part of last year’s Lord Mayor’s Appeal was about making music and giving young people that advantage.’ 

The idea for LSO On Track came about in 2005, when London won the bid to stage the 2012 Olympics. ‘The LSO started thinking about the position of culture and what it could do in that area of east London, which was considered to be on our doorstep,’ explains the LSO’s Nunn. 

‘From the beginning, there was an ambition to ensure that there was provision for young people with disabilities, particularly learning disabilities,’ Nunn says. ‘There are various barriers that young people with learning disabilities might have to learning an instrument in a traditional way or being able to do things in a group setting. So, there was a desire to find ways to make sure they were included and to engage with them.’

The top-level musicians who work with LSO On Track have experienced first-hand the effects of Make Music Days. Violinist Naoko Keatley has been playing with the LSO for four years, taking an active role in its outreach work, playing to and with adults and children with learning difficulties and disabilities. She’s found that music provides an alternative means of communication for some individuals. 

‘You really feel the impact it has. Sometimes someone may not be able to speak, but they find a way of showing their appreciation through the music or start singing or dancing. And sometimes someone will pick up a random instrument and show a real talent for it. It also lets participants interact with each other, meet new kids and develop the social side of things.’

The project is not exclusively focused on classical instruments and makes use of digital technology. ‘It means that kids who don’t have the capacity to hold instruments are able to participate,’ says Keatley. ‘It really brings out this talent that would otherwise be hidden.’ 

Nunn adds: ‘The musicians benefit massively. We’ve got a huge pool of players who do this kind of work. Expanding the programme has allowed us to do more training for them, which has been great. They do something very specialist and they spend a lot of time on the concert platform. For them to have that individual connection with someone is hugely rewarding.’

The project’s aim to create new opportunities for young people with SEND dovetails with the MCF’s wider commitment to combatting social exclusion and isolation.‘

The masonic community is passionate about giving individuals who are facing a challenge in life a helping hand to get over that challenge and make the most of their lives,’ says Innes. ‘At the end of the two years I hope that more than 1,000 children will have been supported by this project and been able to participate in one way or another. That was an important point for us – to reach as many people as we can.’

‘The musicians benefit massively. For them to have that individual connection with someone is hugely rewarding’

Why musical inclusion is important

A growing body of research suggests that taking part in musical activities can provide a range of emotional, social and educational benefits to people with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND). Listening to and making music stimulates different areas of the brain, supporting verbal and non-verbal communication, as well as encouraging creativity, self-expression and social interaction. 

However, a lack of funding, combined with a lack of local expertise, means that access to musical opportunities can be limited. There are few SEND music resources available outside of the school system, posing barriers for those wishing to take their participation in musical activities further. And young people with SEND attending mainstream schools are at risk of complete musical exclusion due to lack of knowledge and experience among staff. 

‘It’s really important that organisations like the LSO make the resources they have available to people who may not otherwise be able to access them,’ says David Nunn from the LSO. ‘It can open doors for them and give them the opportunity to see what they are capable of. We work with a lot of schools and we want to offer students somewhere to go out of school time where they can pursue their own musical interests, working with the orchestra’s professional musicians.’

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