Lucy Thraves


Rain or shine

12:23, 4th September 2020

Electric Umbrella combats social isolation in people with learning disabilities through music-making. Lucy Thraves finds out more

It started with a commitment to a run of 12 sessions followed by ‘a little show’, according to founder Tom Billington. But in the seven years that have followed, Electric Umbrella has developed into much more than that. A charity that uses music to challenge the perceptions about a frequently misrepresented community, it started life as a one-off project based in Hertfordshire. ‘However,’ continues Tom, ‘we did another version of it where we had 20 people, then 50, then 60, then 100; and now we do shows and tours, we’ve made albums, we’ve written amusical and played on huge stages. We’ve got to the stage where it’s quite unique in this world.’

The overall mission is to combat social isolation, widespread among adults with learning disabilities, through regular, meaningful social interaction, as well as fostering self-confidence and independence in its members. Music-making is at the heart of this, both in day-to-day operations and in the charity’s three live gigs a year. Professional musicians support members creatively in both settings, but – crucially – in a way which doesn’t overshadow them: the focus is always on ‘putting ourselves on par, in both creative and performing terms, with this community of people,’ explains Tom.

I begin to get a sense of the ethos that makes Electric Umbrella what it is. Essential is the way in which the professional musicians, Tom included, learn to understand members so as to be able to adapt to their specific needs. Tom explains that, over time, he’s got to know each person well enough to know ‘when something’s working or not working; when it’s too loud, too quiet, too fast, too slow, wrong song, wrong key – all of those kinds of things.’ He continues: ‘If I’ve got my arm up in the middle of a gig in front of 10,000 people, because I’m feeling that my friend by my side, with a very specific learning disability, is uncomfortable, the band will know something’s up and we’re changing it; and we’ll pull it down and start something different and together we’re going to go to this other place that we wouldn’t have gone to if we’d just ploughed through with the original plan.’

What’s striking is the readiness to be flexible, and how, on stage, this allows for the kind of spontaneity that can make live performance so electrifying. ‘Audiences really respond to this,’ explains Tom. ‘Say, for example, there’s a young person in their 20s who’s never had the chance to perform live before – and suddenly they’re there, centre stage, under the lights, and it sounds incredible: how they respond to that moment is deeply inspiring, because there’s no ego. There’s this wonderful connection to the moment that most people don’t have or can’t access. And it absolutely doesn’t matter if anything is in time, in tune, the right words… none of that matters. What you’re seeing and valuing is this very deep connection to the moment, a very immediate response to what is going on. If I asked you to get on stage in front of 5000 people you’d be disabled by fear,’ he says to me with a smile, and he’s not wrong. ‘That’s the beautiful thing about this group of people. Most people couldn’t do what they do.’

It’s about gradually making the world a bit more accepting, more creative, and a bit more open to the superpowers of others, the things they’ve got rather than the things they haven’t

For a small charity whose bread and butter is bringing vulnerable people together to make music, it’s no surprise that months of lockdown have presented significant challenges. ‘In the days before lockdown, we thought, “We’re toast, we’re not going to survive this,”’ admits Tom. How would it work if participants weren’t able to meet, and if gigs weren’t able to happen? But it soon dawned on the team that they could actually make the situation work to their advantage. ‘We realised that in a funny kind of way this is what we were built for, this is what we’ve been working for all this time: tackling social isolation. And all of a sudden, everyone in the world is forced into social isolation, which is what our guys feel all the time, so it suddenly it’s become much easier to sympathise with their everyday experience.’

The team rallied quickly, and on day one of lockdown they began broadcasting interactive shows and singalongs through their online channel, EU TV. Added to this, individual sessions have been taken online and now happen daily, meaning that the community has stayed connected and engaged. And there have even been some unexpected positives: ‘Having something to pin your entire day around seems to be the number one benefit for everyone,’ says Tom. ‘For some people, especially during lockdown, the motivation to even get out of bed has been hard. And actually, many of our guys feel like that even in normal times. So having daily sessions to tune into has been of enormous benefit to everyone.’

Furthermore, the move towards digital broadcasting has allowed the charity to expand its reach beyond the UK, with participants now hailing from around the world, as far away as Australia. It’s also benefitted those members for whom travel is a challenge in normal times. ‘One family I was talking to was saying it’s been massively empowering for their son because of the things that he struggles with is travel. Part of his independence is taken away when he has to travel, so he’s reliant on someone else being there. But now he can just sign in and be part of something for a few hours; that’s given him a great sense of independence.’ With all these unexpected benefits, I wonder whether the charity will maintain its online presence even when things return to normal. Yes, says Tom, but there’s no doubt that an essential part of what the charity does is missing – ‘the meaningful social interaction and being together, physical connection, playing instruments, sharing space and dancing.’

I ask, lastly, if Tom has any advice for helping music-making to become more accessible to people with learning disabilities. ‘We have a phrase which is “make the world a bit more Electric Umbrella”’, he explains. ‘It’s about understanding that there is so much joy beyond the stuff we’re used to, and allowing for that to happen. It’s about gradually making the world a bit more accepting, more creative, and bit more open to the superpowers of others, the things they’ve got rather than the things they haven’t, and not trying to make everyone the same.’ It boils down to redefining how we understand beauty, he concludes. ‘If beauty is always the same, then where can art go next? It’s going to just stay the same, that’s why it sometimes seems like so many art forms have plateaued. There’s so much depth to be found in the idea of beauty if it can be broken down and expanded.’


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