A project which brings music to nearly 90 people with learning disabilities in North Wales has won the very first award of its kind from the Bryn Terfel Foundation.
Thanks to an ex-head teacher and the William Mathias Music Centre youngsters and adults with learning disabilities have become Hidden Talents (Doniau Cudd) and get free music sessions every week alongside trained musicians.
Their last big performance was at the prestigious North Wales International Music Festival in St Asaph Cathedral.
Hidden Talents received the Bryn Terfel Foundation award for promoting the arts in social care.
The award, made for the first time, came at a glittering black tie presentation night at Cardiff City Hall during the 11th Wales Care Awards, run in conjunction with Care Forum Wales.
Musician Arfon Wyn was headmaster at Beaumaris primary school, where he welcomed youngsters with learning disabilities “with open arms.”
Ten years ago he met with former director of the William Mathias centre, Elinor Bennett Wigley and administrator Meinir Llwyd Roberts, now the director, to discuss his idea for integrated music sessions for people with learning disabilities with fellow musicians of the same age.
“Arfon came to us 10 years ago with his vision. He had been headmaster at a special school and felt that once they left the school environment there was a very limited opportunity to participate in music,” said Meinir.
She added: “We were thrilled to receive the award, especially an award with Bryn Terfel’s name on it!
“It was a lovely occasion and fantastic for us. Arfon, myself and Elinor organised the first of the sessions 10 years ago this year and it’s great to get that recognition.
“Arfon has dedicated such a lot of time over 10 years and has a wonderful way of leading the sessions and it’s great for his work to be acknowledged in this way. We started in 2003 with a class of eight with learning disabilities and now we have three weekly sessions for adults in Caernarfon and in Prestatyn and Rhyl with Denbighshire Arts Service and Pwllheli once a month.
“Also a year ago we set up a junior version of Hidden Talents because we were getting requests from Gwynedd Social Services. Now we have about 85-90 people a week attending sessions.”
Students from Bangor University and the William Mathias centre help out at the music sessions.
“Arfon is the main leader for all of them but other musicians work alongside Arfon. The original Caernarfon group which meets at Galeri Caernarfon has some of the same members as it did 10 years ago. We get funding from Arts Council for Wales and Gwynedd,” said Meinir.
Arfon added: “I took early retirement about 18 months ago to concentrate on the music and now we have a Hidden Talents 1 and 2 and a youth group. The performances are totally improvised; no performance is the same as the last one.
“I start with a basic folk song because a lot of classical musicians have used folk music, it’s not childish and it is uplifting. I have to make the arrangement in my head and see what happens. Singing is the most difficult thing for someone with learning disability so I make sure we get a good singer to give the performance integrity.
“Meinir has been excellent in finding us funding. One of our biggest costs is taxis to get people to the venues.
“Winning the award was an amazing surprise and well worth making the trip to Cardiff for.”
Meinir said: “When the group performs they have a marked effect on the people watching. They performed at Cardiff City Hall in June, at the Senedd in 2011.
“At the William Mathias Centre we were approached by the Alzheimer’s Society about their Singing for the Brain programme and we provide tutors for that which has been very successful.”
Arfon is also working on the Alzheimer’s project. “I am busier now than I ever was as a head teacher, but I’m happier and it is less stressful,” he said.