Electric Umbrella: The Hertfordshire charity changing the perception of learning disability through music

PUBLISHED: 17:30 12 October 2020 | UPDATED: 17:47 12 October 2020

Electric Umbrella perform at festivals (photo: Electric Umbrella)

Electric Umbrella perform at festivals (photo: Electric Umbrella)

Electric Umbrella

Electric Umbrella is a Hertfordshire-based charity that uses music to enrich and empower the lives of people with learning disabilities

A colourful bunch of inspiring, innovative and inclusive musicians are helping to change perceptions of disability through their ‘yellow blood’.

It was five years ago that Electric Umbrella was established as a charity in south-west Hertfordshire, using music to enrich and empower the lives of people with learning disabilities. But the story begins earlier, in 2013, when musician Tom Billington and art therapist Melanie Boda recognised a lack of opportunity for adults with learning disabilities to express who they really are. Drawing on their extensive experience of community arts, the professional world of entertainment and supporting disabled adults, the project grew organically from weekly workshops and small shows, raising small amounts of money through crowdfunding campaigns and busking.

But Electric Umbrella is way more than music – it strives to provide purpose and a sense of worth, togetherness and belonging to what the charity describes as ‘some of society’s most misrepresented people’. It uses professional musicians and specially-adapted instruments and a collaborative approach, working inclusively with service users. The result is that Electric Umbrella is an exciting movement which seeks, and manages, to challenge perceptions of people with learning disabilities, while supporting them to make music and help reduce social isolation.

The aim has never been more relevant than it is now. In normal times – although ‘there’s no such thing as normal’, as one of the group’s self-penned songs goes – the charity serves 60 people across three groups in Rickmansworth, Watford and Hemel Hempstead. There’s also a 100-strong Big Yellow Choir in Abbots Langley.

Annually Electric Umbrella typically performs (dressed in distinctive yellow and black t-shirts) to around 5,000 primary and secondary school pupils, to about 1,500 people in day services and residential homes who otherwise would not access live music, and to about another 15,000 people at events, as well as reaching more than half a million people through online and social media content.

Co-founder and artistic director Tom Billington communicating on stage (photo courtesy of Umbrella Academy)Co-founder and artistic director Tom Billington communicating on stage (photo courtesy of Umbrella Academy)

While its gigs, summer festivals and tours were cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions, the small dedicated team behind the charitable organisation knew they had to work hard to continue to support members. During the pandemic Electric Umbrella successfully adapted to serve even more people after being forced to pause face-to-face meetings.

Melanie Boda, chief executive officer of EU, says, ‘Lockdown hit and Electric Umbrella as we knew it was over. Not knowing how long it was going to go on for was extremely worrying. We were on the verge of financial collapse with all the lost income from gigs and events.

‘We had conversations about whether to mothball the whole thing and preserve what we had for the future. And then the Electric Umbrella can-do attitude kicked back in. There was absolutely no point being a charity combatting social isolation if we couldn’t support our community in a time of even further isolation.

‘We immediately started running some sessions online, figuring out the tech as we went along and wondering if there would be any interest. It was obvious straight away there was a huge need for it. We were used to running eight hours of music sessions a week, now we were delivering five hours a day. And within the first week people had become so reliant on it, we just had to keep going.’

The result was a new venture – EUTV, which created more than 400 hours of live daily online provision over 19 weeks of lockdown. This included joining with other communities, such as Mencap and the Williams Syndrome Foundation, for daily singalongs, plus interviews with musicians including Toyah Willcox, Tony Hadley, The Beatbox Collective, David Hunter and RAK-SU.

Face-to-face sessions have gone online due to the pandemic (photo: Electric Umbrella)Face-to-face sessions have gone online due to the pandemic (photo: Electric Umbrella)

EU was eligible for emergency response grants, which meant the charity had financial security to help members and the wider learning disability community through lockdown in a sustainable way. This enabled even more people with learning disabilities to benefit from the fun and therapeutic sessions – a positive result of the Covid-19 crisis.

Tom Billington, artistic director at Electric Umbrella, says the charity has been ‘overwhelmed by families who have been in touch to say that EUTV has been a lifeline’, and described it as ‘crazy’ that more than 24,000 viewers were reached online in the first week.

Around 120 members per day accessed the sessions, with 701 new participants signing up, half of whom had previously never heard of Electric Umbrella.

EU also launched a single in lockdown, Try Smiling, the video of which involved many members lip synching at home. It was put together by Warner Bros. And a collaborative album, with input from members and guests from all over the world, is due to be released in October.

It’s not only people with learning disabilities whose lives are enhanced by Electric Umbrella. Melanie explains what she describes as the ‘inward and outward’ benefits of the charity:

‘The inward part refers to the benefit of our members being involved in our sessions, whether that is face-to-face groups, cyber sessions, choir or performing with us. Music is proven to be educational and therapeutic and provides regular meaningful social interaction for a group of people who are socially isolated.

‘But we are really interested in the outward benefits for our audiences without a learning disability too – the ‘challenging perceptions’ part of what we do. We are reaching and impacting these people in different ways, through live gigs, seeing a music video online or by catching us performing at a corporate awards dinner. In many ways, we are a charity for everyone without a learning disability, because those are the people we are challenging to think differently.’

She adds, ‘Our members will always benefit individually from what we do, but what we can do for the whole community by changing perceptions will ultimately have more impact. I think this is why Electric Umbrella touches people in the way it does, because it really does stop people in their tracks.’

The charity is funded by member subscription fees and local council grants, while the Arts Council and National Lottery have just awarded funding which will help the project move forward. The team of just seven part-time workers – who worked full-time to meet the increased demands in lockdown – are a hardworking passionate force of creativity, diversity and love.

I had heard of EU through mutual friends but never seen them at work. Discovering the charity and watching the online live sessions ‘made’ many of my lockdown days. I was often moved to tears and I wanted to be a part of the music, magic and mayhem that Electric Unbrella is becoming more widely known for thanks to an energy-filled collective response to a global tragedy.

I ask Melanie about the secret to this magic and she replies that the growth has been totally organic. She adds, ‘We seem to be a magnet for like-minded people. We can spot people with ‘yellow blood’ and once they’ve experienced us, they’re here to stay!’

With a disabled son myself, a degree in health and social care and a love of singing, Electric Umbrella truly captured my (now yellow) heart through the joy it generously shared online. You can definitely count me in.

Electric Umbrella is currently having a break, but another term of online sessions is planned for the autumn. For more information, details about the comprehensive online service available, and to watch videos of EU in action, visit electricumbrella.co.uk

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