A jazz band that gives people with learning disabilities the chance to create, rehearse and perform their own music alongside seasoned players is revolutionising some of its participants’ lives.
Band without Boundaries, based in Kent, teams up seasoned musicians with about 8-10 people with learning disabilities to play jazz.
The band 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.”
The band is having a positive effect on participants. “One man, who is 90, has never played before in his life, the whole of which has always been in an institution,” says Marlow. “He loves the sessions, really looks forward to it, and is always asking his carers when the next rehearsal is being held.
“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.”
Each Band without Boundaries session is attended by about 20 people, mainly from Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Swanley. It is a mix of local musicians and 8-10 people with learning disabilities 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 Browne sets up keyboards, and volunteers bring their own wind instruments and guitars, Marlow organises a selection of percussion instruments, including tambourines, shakers, claves, djembes and a full drum kit.
“Percussion instruments are more accessible, particularly for people whose disability may leave them with limited co-ordination,” Marlow said.
“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.”
Browne has adapted his teaching techniques to fit the mix of abilities of the group. He starts with tapping out question-and-answer rhythms, encourages a complementary beat, then the instruments join in. Browne 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.
“Leading the jazz club has been one of the happiest musical experiences of my life,” Browne said. “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.”