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The Music Man Project’s performance at the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo in Canada was our most ambitious adventure yet: 12 days, 5 performances, 3 workshops, 15 hours of rehearsals, 4 VIP receptions and 5 audience photo calls. I’m proud to report that the 10 remarkable global ambassadors were a huge hit. They stole the hearts of over 20,000 people and were the talk of the town.

 

The invitation to perform at the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo came from the recently retired Director of Music for His Majesty’s Royal Marines Band Service, Lt. Col. Jason Burcham – now a resident of Nova Scotia and the Musical Director for the 2024 Tattoo. Jase and I established the ground-breaking Royal Marines/Music Man Project partnership in 2021. The collaboration has so far included a top-10 Christmas single, a guest appearance at the Mountbatten Festival of Music, a UK tour and our own landmark Music is Magic at the Royal Albert Hall concert, among numerous other events together.

Despite all this success, I felt a sense of trepidation as we landed at Halifax Airport. My ambassadors had flown long distances before (San Diego 2023). They had performed to large audiences before (6 times at the Royal Albert Hall). They had performed concerts on consecutive days before (Royal Marines UK Tour). In Canada we would face all these challenges and more. We had never performed in an arena like the Scotiabank Centre in Halifax. We had never performed with the RAF. We had never been away from home for this long, never played to 20,000 people and never performed for 5 consecutive days. We would be the first ever learning-disabled music group to appear at the Tattoo from anywhere in the world and feared I was pushing my musicians too far. I was desperate not to let anyone down – particularly Jason and our creative media partner, the TEAM LEWIS Foundation. The stakes were high and I was feeling the pressure. but I did my best to hide this as I chatted to Frasor, our liaison officer, on the way to our university accommodation.

We were due to perform two musical items: “Music is Magic” and “High Low Middle”. The former couldn’t fail to impress. It is our theme song and had been a hit at both the Mountbatten Festival of Music at the Royal Albert Hall and our UK concert tour with the Royal Marines. We would perform the song with the RAF Central Band and a choir so I was confident we could fill the venue together.

I was right. The ambassadors nailed every performance. The audience turned on their phone torches and waved to the music. It was a beautiful sight, causing our maestro conductor Daniel to mouth “WOW!” as he glanced over his shoulder while busily swooping his baton left and right at the RAF. Over the ecstatic cheers of the audience, the announcer captured the mood of the arena perfectly with his closing words, “I think you’ll agree… the world needs more of this”.

I was less confident about our second piece. I wrote “High Low Middle” with my wife whilst driving down a dual carriageway some 20 years ago. We were just married, and we laughed uncontrollably as we experimented with the actions, Sarah occasionally yelling at me to keep my hands on the steering wheel. It’s a big song for 10 performers to pull off in an arena which seats 5000 people though. It relies on audience interaction, a very British sense of silliness and lots of dancing. Would this be right for an event renowned for military precision and control?

Jason had the genius idea of inviting other cast members into the arena to dance with our students. As the song progressed, more and more military personnel, soloists, extras, volunteers and even audience members would all dance along to my song. I instructed the audience to stand and join us too. On opening night, I glanced up from my piano while belting out the lyrics into the microphone: 200 performers and the whole audience of 5000 people were partying deliriously with our musicians. It was like a Monty Python sketch:

Guards in bearskin hats danced the flamenco. Fife and Drum musicians in full American Civil War regalia danced the Can-Can. The tallest soldier sought out the shortest RAF musician with a rose between his teeth for the Tango! German musicians mimed “fiddle in the middle” barely containing their laughter. It was completely bonkers but utterly brilliant. Military precision and control went out the window as the entire arena let their hair down (or in the case of the 18th century re-enactment group – their wigs) and we all simply had fun!

I wondered if any tattoo had ever seen anything like this before.

 

Fellow cast members queued up to enter to join the fun. Those who couldn’t hold back their excitement even danced backstage before being released into the arena.

Those lucky enough to find dance partners in our musicians formed particularly special bonds. Ambassador Sam Marsh did the head-banger every night with her Kenyan acrobats. Ambassador Sam Hayter danced with the lovely Rob. Ambassador Claire paired with Lt Col. Jase and ambassador Alex found his soulmate in Canadian Air Force Guard, Sky. Memories were made that will be cherished forever.

One cast member summed up their experience perfectly:

“Best performance group I have EVER been cast with. Our family has been going through a lot of hard times. For the 3 minutes of High Low Middle…. all our troubles were gone and we had fun for the first time in a very long time. Music heals!!!”

  

We were the talk of the town. Members of the public stopped us in the street to congratulate our performers. When some of our group got on a bus after the show, they were greeted with an impromptu performance of High Low Middle by a random group of scouts!

The show’s Finale witnessed hundreds more cast members joining together in the arena for a moving montage of brass, bagpipes, drums, hymns, salutes and national anthems. Our students stood tall and still for 20 minutes. Two of them (ambassadors Phil and Alex) held their Union Jacks aloft with chests out and broad smiles. At this prestigious and significant international event, we proudly represented the global learning-disabled community that I have tried so hard to connect through my music over the last 25 years. We proudly represented our charity, our city and our great country. We proudly represented our network of regional UK Music Man Projects and the countries around the world we’ve reached, from America to the Philippines. We proudly represented the friends we’ve lost along the way.

I never felt more like a beacon of hope for this under-represented and under-valued community than in that special moment.  

But the story doesn’t end there.

What I hadn’t counted on was the overwhelming love that our fellow cast members showed towards our students. Nova Scotia is the friendliest place you can imagine, and the sense of companionship was palpable as the tattoo came to its conclusion. The trademark joy, passion and ‘living in the moment’ that my musicians exude were a breath of fresh air. There wasn’t a minute that went by without a visitor to our dressing room with a gift, free food or message of thanks and congratulations. The Music Man Project students made friends with everyone they met – from the RAF to the Kenyan acrobats, from Highland dancers to the dog from Canada’s Got Talent.

The relationships were heartfelt and the connections ran deep in those 12 wonderful days. This was especially poignant for those who had their own experience of disability, either personally or in their family.

Our ground-breaking debut at the Tattoo was featured in a French-speaking news article and we even appeared live on Canada TV!

Away from the arena, we delivered two workshop at the Halifax Central Library to school children and the local community. This was a chance to perform more of our music and for  ambassador Dan to be let loose on the drum kit!

One of the highlights of our trip was our visit to Easter Seals Nova Scotia, an organisation which provides support and inclusive activities to empower people with disabilities. It was a privilege to see their members join in with our music-making. We felt at home here, and I hope they will become original students of the first Music Man Project in Canada.  

Just like the Royal Marines, the Central Band of the RAF embraced our students with respect and enthusiasm, and I look forward to more equally fruitful collaborations in the future. By the last night of the show these brilliant musicians had even choreographed their own dance moves to High Low Middle. It was a pleasure to work with their conductor, Flight Lieutenant Michael Parsons, Director of Music of the Central Band of the RAF.

We were also brilliantly supported by our liaison officer, Frasor Clark of the Canadian Air Force. A highly-regarding Piper who we hope to work with in the future, Fraser ensured we were at the right place at the right time and looked after our every need.

As well as the ambassadors and their parents, I was supported by The Music Man Project’s award-winning volunteer, photographer and bass player, Jon Webber.  Not only did Jon play bass for our musical items, but he also captured every moment through his beautiful photographs. You can view his complete collection in our online album.

Congratulations to the Music Man Project Global Ambassadors and their parents for such outstanding commitment and hard work. It was exhausting, but they never complained and they nailed every performance. We have many hundreds of musicians across our national network who would have loved this opportunity, but I could only do this with the families I’ve known for decades, and with performers I teach every week, who trust me implicitly and who have the stamina, experience and energy to travel and perform across the UK and around the world. It takes time and training to achieve this and you are a credit to our community.

“I saw the performance this afternoon. I was absolutely sobbing”.

 

“My nephew is autistic, and he was often excluded in school because people didn’t want to deal with him being ‘different’. If something like The Music Man Project UK had existed here when he was in elementary school, his life would have been so very different.”

 

“Seeing so many other performers from the show rush out onto the floor to take part in the High, Low, Middle dance started the tears again. All anyone really wants is to be accepted,  to be loved, and to have someone believe in them.”

 

“Please never stop this project. You are quite literally changing lives.”

  

“Your group reflects what it means to be a Canadian and a Nova Scotian. Everyone has a place in this world and i hope your group comes back to perform in our Tattoo.”

 

“The most amazing group we have ever had here at the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo.”

As well as this glowing feedback, I was honoured to meet the King’s representative in Nova Scotia, Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Nova Scotia, Arthur LeBlance. He loved our performance, remarking that we prove “there is a place in the world for everyone”.

We would not have been able to fulfil this commitment without the support of the TEAM LEWIS Foundation. Words cannot express our gratitude for this wonderful organisation and the impact they’ve made on our cause since the tragic death of our charity president, Sir David Amess. We can’t wait to see the latest TEAM LEWIS documentary about our incredible tattoo experience.

Finally, from the bottom of my heart I thank Lt. Col. Jason Burcham for his trust in me and his vision for the people I serve. Jase is a truly remarkable man whose love for our students is written all over his face every time he meets them or even talks about them.

Jase, The Music Man Project salutes you!

Farewell Nova Scotia. We will return one day…

 

 

 

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