Interactive music experiences for SEN learners


Hertfordshire based charity, Electric Umbrella, creates live, interactive music experiences for people with SEN.
Co-founder, Mel Boda, reflects on how it all began, and the impact the charity has today.

I’m a qualified Art Therapist so I already had experience of working with SEN learners, and found it incredibly rewarding. When I met Tom, our co-founder, on a community arts project, we both recognised there were few opportunities for people with SEN to take to ‘the stage’ and we wanted to change that.

We started by delivering workshops across Hertfordshire, raising small amounts of money through crowdfunding initiatives and busking opportunities. Within two years we had delivered hundreds of hours of music workshops, performed to thousands of people at gigs, and held our first summer festival, Umbrellafest.

We’re now supported by a group of amazing professional musicians, a small, dedicated staff team, and lots of amazing volunteers. In doing so, we’re on a mission to challenge people to think differently about people with SEN.

When our superstars take to the stage, they help change the way the world looks at them – and others. This is so important because we believe people with SEN are all too often left behind and social care models are hardwired to be about surviving, not thriving.

Our education programmes are central to everything we do.

Every Wednesday afternoon, we deliver Music Machine, a specialist music experience for hundreds of SEN schools across the UK. We also offer mainstream schools EU Express, unique tour visits with our members, all part of our ambition to challenge children and young people to think differently about our community.

Music Machine is joined by hundreds every week and helps teachers and students everywhere to connect, express themselves through music and importantly, have loads of fun. Teachers regularly tell us just how much their students love it, and for them it’s an opportunity to switch off and join in too.

These online sessions are fully interactive, filled with vibrant music to lift spirits, stimulate minds and shake out the body. Right now, our autumn term is up and running. We are currently on the road to delivering our exciting new concept, Music Machine – On Tour!

This will give schools across the country an opportunity to have an Electric Umbrella visit during a show. All delivered with the help of our brand new (and very yellow) bus.

Live Performance.

For schools who want that little bit more of Electric Umbrella magic, we can also offer bespoke workshops, and show stopping performances.

Our work doesn’t end there. We reach people with SEN all over the world via free online ‘Plug In’ sessions. These work to combat social isolation by facilitating regular, meaningful social interaction for members as well as promoting self-confidence and independence.

During the pandemic we launched additional online sessions to bring fun interactive shows, singalongs, often with inspiring guests, for over 2000 people, many of whom relied on these social and creative sessions to get them through this difficult time.

Guests have included celebrities Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Toyah Willcox, Andrew Self, Dan Gillespie Sells from The Feeling and Tony Hadley – the two latter also sang on the charity’s Christmas single The Best Christmas (In Lockdown).

We also offer smaller sessions where members can express themselves. Many of our members are able to use their social care budgets to meet the cost of these amazing experiences. This includes two Big Yellow Choirs, one for people in Hertfordshire and the other is online and open to everyone, anywhere in the world! We also have cyber sessions for young people aged 11-17 and adults. These are small group sessions where members can express themselves, make music and importantly, new friends.

We have members who have been part of our journey from the very start. We recently launched an Ambassador programme, for these experienced members who want to embrace new challenges to plan and perform live, gain valuable work experience, and participate in our schools programme.

There’s real opportunities to make music too, over the past year members collaborated on one of the most extraordinary albums ever released.

Co-written and produced from our homes, Sunflower Avenue documents a spectrum of emotions travelled by the SEN community living through a pandemic.

Overall, everything we do is all about the magic that happens when people with SEN and pro-musicians work shoulder to shoulder. It’s about achieving incredible things together. It’s about adapted instruments, making extraordinary adjustments, and it being perfectly acceptable that sometimes it takes three people to play a cello!

Music can have a magical, inspiring impact, and yes, it really does change the lives of those in our community.

Mel Boda
Author: Mel Boda

Mel Boda
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Mel Boda, a qualified Arts Therapist, co-founded Electric Umbrella with Artistic Director Tom, after they met on a community arts project. They both recognised that there were few opportunities for learning disabled people to take to ‘the stage’.
After establishing the first Electric Umbrella group, Mel was certain that even though the destination was unknown, a big yellow adventure lay ahead. Mel has a passion for using the arts to unite the community, and Electric Umbrella is no exception.
I: @electricumbrellacharityF: @ElectricUmbrella
T: @electricbrolly



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