Finding our rhythm

Musicians with learning disabilities write original works and perform in a percussion orchestra alongside Royal Academy of Music students. Alex Thomas describes a creative collaboration

City Lit Percussion Orchestra - man beating drum

Although Simba Ngwarati has been involved in digital music making for some time, he has only recently started to play instruments and compose music for live events.

Since joining the Percussion Orchestra at the City Lit adult education college in London two years ago, he has been working with musicians from the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) to compose pieces.

He says: “It is a big opportunity for me to see what I can achieve with orchestral musicians.”

In the orchestra, 10 City Lit students with learning disabilities play alongside nine RAM musicians. They aim to create and perform original compositions to a high standard and break down societal assumptions.

It is a unique collaboration, described by England’s chief social worker Lyn Romeo as “the future of learning disabilities”.

The project, launched in 2015, was the idea of Michael Donlevy, the head of City Lit’s Centre for Learning Disabilities Education. A total of 100 RAM and City Lit students have been involved since.

Prospective students enrol for three terms and this culminates in 45-minute concerts at the end of the year at the City Lit and the RAM.

People are interviewed in person and can enrol irrespective of musical background – they only have to commit to doing their best for the group. They range from highly accomplished individuals to those who are relatively new to music.

Students attend weekly classes all day on Wednesdays to compose material and develop listening and playing skills, as well as practise the pieces they’re writing together.

The orchestra includes a vast array of instruments including Javanese bonang, floor toms and cymbals, xylophone, melodica, piano, keyboards and hand percussion as well as, occasionally, electronics.

It has performed at venues including the Open University and the British Museum, as well as at the Skills for Care Accolades awards and the Westminster Society (now called LDN) festival.

Almost all the City Lit students return year after year. RAM students participate for at least a term, often longer, and several have returned to volunteer or as artists in residence.

As RAM harpist Sunshine Lo says: “This has been one of the most memorable projects I’ve ever done. It’s my first time working with adults with learning disabilities, and I have learnt so much.”

Julian West, director of Open Academy, RAM’s community and participation department, says: “The project offers academy students a context wherein they can apply their musicianship creatively, deploying their skills for the mutual benefit of the group, rather than as performers on a concert platform or as instrumental teachers.

“Through collaborating with percussion orchestra members, students develop personally, artistically and professionally.”

The Percussion Orchestra will be performing at the John Lyons Theatre at City Lit and at the Royal Academy of Music later this year.

Alex Thomas is a composer, tutor at City Lit and leader of the Percussion Orchestra.