Written by Lily Fontaine, as part of Youth Music Next Gen.
Action On Disability is a pan-disability organisation which removes barriers for 11 to 25-year-olds by providing access to opportunities, like the music project funded by Youth Music, that bring joy and encourage development across a broad spectrum of life skills.
I spoke to long-time volunteer-turned support worker and music leader, Shannon O’Connor, about how the project has not only benefited the organisation’s members but improved her life as well. Now 23 years old, Shannon has been with Action on Disability since she was 15.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your music?
I’ve spent pretty much my entire life around Shepherd’s Bush, and about half that time has been spent at Action on Disability. I’ve grown up around everyone who works there, so I think it's sort of shaped who I am. Since the start of the music project, I've mainly been learning how to play the bass guitar.
Did you make music before getting involved in Action on Disability’s music project?
When we used to be at the old centre, they created a band and persuaded me to join in. At that time I never wanted to perform - standing on a stage was the last thing on my mind, but I joined and I learned how to play the keyboard. We performed at Bush Hall in front of quite a lot of people, we did a few summer festivals in Bishops Park and some open days. It was quite a lot of fun and when we started doing the music project last year, I was like, well, I've done it already so I might as well continue!
How did you first get involved with Action on Disability?
My brother started going to Action on Disability before I did, and one summer he invited me along to an open day to see how everything is run. They needed help with setting up this music performance and I was like, well I'm here, I might as well help. Ever since then, I’ve felt like this is something I’m interested in. So I became a volunteer and spent a good several years helping out with activities and assisting the music staff. A couple of years ago I got a job working on the Friday Club as a support worker, and then when the Tuesday music project started, Lisa offered me the position to help out.
What happens at a typical Action on Disability music session?
With the younger lot we would do these warm-up exercises where we’d put on a beat and they’d say their names or sometimes they would start trying to sing around it. It was a way of getting everyone relaxed, as some of them were a bit uncomfortable because it was the first time that they had to do something like that.
Then we played different versions of musical games; for example, we had this conducting game where people had to decide the sounds that they wanted to play along with the beat and everyone had to follow this one person. The games got us to think outside of the box because we were continuously doing it and everyone had to find something new when it was their turn.
Finally, we went on to what they wanted to create - it wasn't us leading them, it was more of them leading us. If somebody wanted to learn how to play the guitar we would set it up, show them how to hold it and where they put their fingers and just leave them to do what they wanted.
With the second group, a lot of our songs were more based around what we could create in using instruments. Once we got the beat in place we’d ask, what do we want to say? When we stepped into that room, everything else just got put aside; we could walk in and know that it was a safe space to express ourselves. It became this place where we could go and show everybody what was on our mind and how we feel about the world.
What have been your favourite experiences as part of Action on Disability’s music project?
I think just seeing how everyone developed; at the beginning of the project, some of the members didn't talk or interact very much with the group. But then, months later, I was able to see the difference from who they were before we started. After several weeks, the first group members had created songs and come up with lyrics. When we went and performed as part of the annual general meeting, it wasn't us leading them anymore, it was the members leading each other. It was really cool to see them so focused on just this one thing that all of them had come together to create out of pretty much nothing.
What is your proudest achievement as part of Action on Disability’s music project?
It's probably getting back to performing, because when I was younger I had major stage fright. I think joining in with music has gotten rid of that fear of being up on a stage, or in front of anybody. When we’re playing music I’m not focusing on the people who are watching me, I'm listening to everyone else playing and singing along. It blocks out all the negativity of standing in front of people.
How has Action on Disability’s music project helped you musically, personally and socially?
When the sessions went online, we created a song all about being in lockdown. All the lyrics are really meaningful as they gauged how everyone has been feeling while stuck indoors, what they've been up to and what their hopes were once everyone was able to come back out of their houses. Surprisingly, it did wonders for my sanity as well, as it gave me something to occupy my time and kept me from overthinking.
It's helped me to develop quite a lot, really; getting to know a small, intimate group doing music helped me to better understand how to work with each individual member because they all have different needs. Also, when I started at Action on Disability I barely talked to anybody. But, after doing so much with them, and when I started doing music as well, having to talk to all those people helped me to express myself. I think it showed me how it was perfectly fine to talk to people and that nothing was going to happen if I went up to somebody to ask where the toilet was, for example.
I never saw myself helping to lead a music project so I think it helped my confidence in leading groups as well as setting up music equipment. It forces you to sort of step up and just acknowledge that you're here and it's perfectly fine to mess up because you know that everyone around you is not going to judge you.
What are your plans and hopes for the future?
I would love to continue doing music and developing the skills that I’ve already learned, as well as learning more - especially about the technical side. Being behind the scenes or just helping out with the bands is still pretty good because you know that you're part of something.
What has working with Action on Disability meant to you?
It's meant a lot because it's helped me to develop a lot. It's helped me to understand different people's personalities, to develop my skills as a group leader and to step up and come out of my comfort zone. It’s so beyond words what has come from doing music.
Thank you to our funders; the National Lottery via Arts Council England, players of People's Postcode Lottery, and support from donors, partners and fundraisers, who make our work supporting young peoples' lives through music possible.
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