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David Stanley BEM: From Teacher to Entrepreneur

David Stanley was an experienced deputy headteacher in a mainstream school when he decided to quit and take his weekly music school for children and adults with learning difficulties full-time. Read on for his story and the lessons he learnt along the way...


"22 years ago, I met Tony. Tony has Down syndrome and was a friend of a friend. Before him, I’d had no other link with disabled people whatsoever. As I began spending time with him, it was obvious that as a musician I should try some music with Tony. So I sat him down one day and played him the song “I Am The Music Man” –and he loved it. He soon requested his favourite song, which was the 12 days of Christmas. He wanted it played 14 times and after the 14th time, we both collapsed in absolute laughter because it was only July.

I developed my work with Tony into a weekly music school for people with learning disabilities, which I ran alongside my job as a deputy headteacher. During the first few months I joked with Tony and his friends that one day they would play the Royal Albert Hall. It was a bit of a joke at the time. But then it became a sort of pipe dream. And as the decades went on, it became my absolute obsession to fulfil that promise.

20 years later I presented 200 of my students at the Royal Albert Hall in front of 3,000 people. It was the largest ever celebration of accessible music making for people with disabilities in the UK, and the highlight of my career.

But how did I go from working with one student to running a full-time education service that is challenging what it means to have accessible arts and culture in this country? Here are 6 things I've learnt along the way:


1. Find your inspiration

When the Music Man Project was still a weekly club, a girl named Charlotte was incredibly shy and would scream with fear if there was more than one person in the room. Fast forward a few years and she sang a solo at the London Palladium in front of 2,000 people. Her mother wrote to me and said,

"Without David, my daughter would still be sitting in the corner of the lounge, getting more fearful and frustrated with life, leading me into a deeper and darker place, wondering if there was ever going to be any good coming to hers or my life."

A quote like that made me realise my impact. I had found the place I was needed most. The act of helping people is at the heart of entrepreneurship for me and it's what motivates me everyday. 


2. Be creative and open-minded

When I decided to make The Music Man Project full-time, I needed to find ways to expand my work around the country. I shared my music and learning resources to help other people start their own Music Man Projects in this country and around the world, which was very effective. Finding inspiration and not being afraid to try new things is really, really important as you’re developing your career as an entrepreneur.


3. Be disruptive

I didn’t initially see myself as a disruptive person as it seems to be quite a negative thing. But actually, it’s a very positive thing because you’re challenging what’s already out there and what might be limiting. There is still a lot of elitism in the arts. A lot of obstacles for people with learning difficulties shouldn’t be there if we are meant to live in an equal society. So, you need to keep pushing. If I do nothing else but keep bashing the door down and help people run through in many years to come, then that’s a good legacy for the future.


4. Learn to see failure as a positive

Of course, along the way I’ve made some terrible mistakes. I remember starting a tambourine exercise with a young man who was autistic and instead of copying me – he threw it at my head! To be a disruptor, you must be able to cope with the fact that you’ll fail or have other people saying you can’t do it. Now, I see my failures as a rehearsal for success. You must commit yourself to doing something and then hope the rewards will come later.


5. Set goals and aim high

I took 200 students to the Royal Albert Hall because I became obsessed with the pipe dream. Thinking big is important and helps drive you forward. The Music Man Project is the world’s first educational performance service for people with learning disabilities. We’re now multi-award winning and hold the world record for most triangles played at once! Our next goal is to play on Broadway.


6. Build your network and credibility

It takes a lot of time and a lot of different expertise, but I’m always looking for ways to partner and collaborate with people so we can achieve our goals. When I started, I had nothing. 20 years in, I am now listened to and respected. I now know what to say to open doors and I’ve got the connections to do it."



David Stanley BEM is a disability rights campaigner, musical director, teacher, composer and Founder and CEO of The Music Man Project. David studied at King’s, graduating with a BMus Music Degree and a Master of Music (Musical Analysis) from the Faculty of Arts & Humanities. In 2021, he was awarded the Medal of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s New Year Honours List for services to people with special needs.

David and the stars of The Music Man Project have recently released a new studio album - Follow the Music! Take a listen here. It's also not too late to download their Christmas single 'Music is Magic' here.

If you’re inspired by the Music Man Project and have a potential business idea yourself, check out our Idea Factory competition which is currently open for applications until 22nd January 2023!

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