Jazz musicians have teamed up with two Kent charities to create a unique band that gives disabled people the chance to create, rehearse and perform their own music alongside seasoned players.
Band without Boundaries was created after Kent Music was challenged by Community Futures Kent to devise a way of offering free, socially inclusive music-making for adults with a range of learning disabilities.
Sue Marlow, Kent Music’s development worker for West Kent, said: “My immediate thought was jazz. I was running a jazz group for adults and asked some of them if they would like to be part of it. They are such giving people and so we have a wonderful core of musicians who are learning from the experience too.
“We had our first session in November 2010 and we have had about 20 sessions so far, one a month on average, with funding from Kent County Council and a private sponsor channelled through Community Futures Kent. Now we’re looking for more funding to keep Band without Boundaries going into the future.”
Sessions were originally held at the Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks, then at Sevenoaks Primary School but now the band practises in the hall at Amherst Primary School, Sevenoaks, which the head allows them to use for free. They can also take advantage of the space outside, which the group was able to use for a fund-raising event in September – the Jazz Picnic.
Each Band without Boundaries session is attended by about 20 people, mainly from Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Swanley, a mix of local musicians and eight to 10 disabled people and their support workers.
The sessions are directed by Joe Browne, a former member of Kent Youth Jazz Orchestra and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra who is now a freelance musician and music leader.
While Joe sets up keyboards, and volunteers bring their own wind instruments and guitars, Sue organises a selection of percussion instruments, including tambourines, shakers, claves, djembes and even a full drum kit.
Sue said: “Percussion instruments are more accessible, particularly for people whose disability may leave them with limited co-ordination.”
Because he has such a mixed group to work with, Joe has had to change his teaching techniques. He starts with tapping out question and answer rhythms, encourages a complementary beat, then the instruments join in. Joe teaches the percussionists that the gaps and stops in music are as important as the notes and that everyone’s contribution is important to the final sound.
Sue added: “A lot of what we play is improvised and devised by us but we also do some well-known material – our version of the James Bond theme has become a bit of a regular. Joe directs the group with gestures and hand signals and everyone looks at him intently, rather than out at the audience.”
That’s not to say the audience feels left out when Band without Boundaries takes to the stage.
“When we played at Sevenoaks Summer Festival Joe got the audience involved too – for a whole hour. The stage was crammed with all sorts of people, from toddlers shaking rattles to grannies with tambourines,” said Sue.
Joe said: “Leading the jazz club has been one of the happiest musical experiences of my life. When you do it for a living, it is sometimes easy to become jaded and forget what an essentially thrilling process music-making is, but the infectious atmosphere of joy that fills the room during the jazz club workshops always reminds me of why I became a musician in the first place.
“The participants are a pleasure to work with and the sound they create is truly inspiring. The music is inclusive in the truest sense as, no matter what their musical capabilities, every individual has an important role that contributes to the overall sound.”
Band without Boundaries has transformed the lives of some of its members.
“One man, who is 90, has never played before in his life, the whole of which has always been in an institution. He loves the sessions, really looks forward to it, and is always asking his carers when the next rehearsal is being held,” said Sue.
“Another man with a very restricted past now mixes and speaks to people who have a real interest in him as a person rather than his learning difficulty. The impact on their lives is amazing.”
She said the volunteers found the sessions just as rewarding.
“It enriches our lives and is a great journey for us all. Everyone has progressed because of our increased understanding of what it means to be disabled.
“We don’t want people to listen just to support the disabled players – we want them to listen because it is good. One of our songs is called Happy People and that sums it up really.
“One listener, in the nicest possible way, called our sound a ‘joyful cacophony’. To me, that is the perfect way to describe a band that is about having fun and creating some very good music.”
Simon Goldsmith, development manager for Community Futures Kent, which works to help people with learning disabilities to be more active in their local community, said: “Music in all its forms has the ability to bring people together in a way that transcends any of our individual differences. In this sense our jazz club has a clear social mission to break down barriers to the full social inclusion of disabled people.
“This for some has been a growth in skills, for others an appreciation of what others can contribute. The success of this work can be judged by the fact that the club goes from strength to strength and has maintained a strong membership base from day one.”
Kent Music, founded in 1948, is a registered education charity and one of the largest music education services in Europe. It delivers instrumental and vocal teaching to more than 14,000 students; employs some 200 peripatetic teachers both full-time and part-time; and organises music groups and summer schools. Kent Music is a partner in music education with Kent County Council. Find out more about Kent Music at www.kent-music.com. For more information on Band Without Boundaries, click here.