On Thursday 20th May 2023, Southend Council bestowed on me the honour of Freeman of the City of Southend – the highest recognition a city can bequeath on an individual.
As I entered the Council Chamber, I noticed only one name under the Freeman of the City heading: my friend and Music Man Project President, the late Sir David Amess. Sir David posthumously became the first Freeman of the City after Her Majesty the Queen awarded Southend City Status in 2022. Presenting my scroll, the Worshipful Mayor of Southend conferred me as the second and only living Freeman of the City. My name will be engraved directly under Sir David’s as a permanent affirmation of his legacy, carved in stone. In that moment the room filled with both the collective memory of an unspeakable tragedy and the celebration of hope overcoming evil.
The ceremony was a deeply emotional occasion and I struggled to hold back tears as I delivered my speech to MPs, councillors and guests. I paid tribute to Music Man Project’s Essex Director, Jenny Hitchcock, who has been by my side since she volunteered at the weekly Saturday Music School over 20 years ago. I also praised the late Joe Dorado for his role in helping me set up my original group with Southend Mencap. Joe instilled in me an ambition to expand my work far and wide, to overcome the barriers of prejudice and low expectations. How proud he would be to see us reaching across the globe, changing perceptions among the great and the good of society. Most of all, I shared the honour with my music students and their parents. They remain my inspiration, the true heroes of my story.
I was also overwhelmed by the kindness of Councillors from all political persuasions who spoke in support of my honour. It was the moment I realised that two decades of voluntary work by musicians with learning disabilities in Southend and their teachers hadn’t gone unnoticed. Our performances, workshops, UK and overseas visits, musical collaborations and recordings, awards, Royal engagements, promotion campaigns and political influencing had really made a difference. We created musical role models with learning disabilities. We established Southend as a national centre of excellence for learning-disabled music education, and the UK as a global exporter of accessible arts and culture.
I am also hugely grateful for the support of Southend’s excellent Members of Parliament: Music Man Project patron, Anna Firth MP and Sir James Duddridge MP. They both dashed back from London to attend the ceremony. Sir David once told me that The Music Man Project should remain politically neutral, and I have always tried to follow his advice. I served as a non-party Leigh Town Councillor and my current Government role as Disability and Access Ambassador for Arts and Culture is also non-political. I’m pleased to say that my dealings with politicians of all shades has been positive. The work of my political patrons behind the scenes has been transformational for my community.
I had prepared some words of thanks and was ready to commend my amazing wife as the rock who kept me down to earth. I was going to jokingly apologise for taking so long to fix the leaking bath and quote my youngest son who said, “Dad, you’re at the height of your success. It’s just a shame you’re so old!”. But as soon as I looked over to my family, all these rehearsed lines went out the window. I was equally emotional when my thoughts turned to my parents. Mum and Dad supported my musical ambitions for 35 years. They taught me to turn disappointment into determination. After each rejection I recall my Mum telling me, “Go on, show them what you can do!”. Her confidence in me was unyielding. Sadly, her long-term illness means she will never understand what The Music Man Project has gone on to achieve. I know deep down she is proud, even though she can’t express it.
Thank you, Southend, for this incredible honour. I share it with my parents, wife, children, and the international Music Man Project family. Most importantly, I thank all of the Music Man Project students who are so inspirational for this great City.
Led by our incredible global student ambassadors, I believe Southend-on-Sea is the most accessible and inclusive City in the world. No matter how big the Music Man Project gets though, Southend will always be our home!