Story 43 - Blog

John's Story

John is a composer and animateur. He runs musical workshops with customers at Look Ahead’s learning disability support services as part of OrchLab, a collaborative project led by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Drake Music, experts in music, technology, and disability.

Music is a huge part of my life, and I love being able to share it with the customers at Look Ahead through OrchLab. I used to work as a GCSE and A-Level music teacher and a lecturer before. But then, I got into running music workshop activities as an animateur on a freelance basis. That was over twenty years ago. I’ve been hooked ever since, and I’ve spent the last seven or eight years of this time running sessions with adults with a learning disability.

I’ve had the pleasure of facilitating workshops at four of Look Ahead’s services, one in Hertfordshire, and the other three across Newham and Tower Hamlets in East London, all through the OrchLab programme. OrchLab brings together musicians from the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), and the music technology of Drake Music.

A typical session includes three professional LPO musicians – typically a trombonist, trumpeter, and violinist – but sometimes we might get a cellist and oboist on the team. I use my composing skills to re-write extracts from a big piece of orchestral music into a trio version for the musicians to play and then create activities using the piece, so the Look Ahead customers can join in as well. To see everyone making music together is really wonderful – it really is the best part of my job.

Of course, every person is unique, so OrchLab uses different accessible instruments developed by Drake Music, that support customers to play along in a way that meets their needs. Some of these instruments include a Touch oboe and a miniature harp with touch sensitive sounds, as well as iPads using musical apps like Garage Band or Thumb Jam, that have a range of instrumental sounds. But one of my favourite instruments is the Soundbeam. All someone needs to do is move in the way of the invisible infra-red “beam” and it makes a sound, but better yet, the sound changes depending on where you are.

We usually run seven all-day sessions at one Look Ahead service each year. The Look Ahead staff engage really well too, and support customers to get the best out of the day, it’s a team effort. Each session has a different theme centred on a piece of music. At one service in Newham for instance, we created a “party piece” – the day practically turned into a party, and the customers played their own tunes along with the musicians to express how they felt about celebrating a special occasion – they made great use of other props as well like shades and feather boas.

In Hertfordshire, we based sessions on the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók who travelled around Eastern European villages documenting folk music, recording songs the villagers sang. So in the OrchLab sessions we asked customers what they would put in a song if they made it up themselves, and used a microphone so we could collect the ideas together. The customers thoroughly enjoyed sharing their own stories, some sang, some wrote lovely poems, and others played tunes. We could all see how this improved their confidence too, which felt very rewarding.

I can’t wait for the next workshop already.

To find out more about OrchLab, visit