Ian White vividly remembers the day he realised what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
The Perth singer-songwriter, 67, had been invited to join a music group for disabled people at a local church.
It was sometime in 2014 when he arrived with his guitar in tow – and discovered a disappointing scene.
“They seemed to be gathering the participants in a circle and have somebody play AT them, instead of participating with them,” he recalls.
“So I got a keyboard and I gave it to Fiona. She was very disabled and had no speech.
“She could move just one finger, and I wondered, ‘What If I held a keyboard under her finger and she held down just one kind of synth sound? I bet she could do that’.
“It was like a lightbulb going off. She just looked at me – nobody had ever asked her to do that before.
“And that was really the start of it.”
Less than two years later, Ian had founded Inspiration Orchestra, a charity which enables people with learning disabilities to play music.
It now has 39 members of all ages from across Tayside and Fife, including Perth, Carnoustie and Crieff.
Ian meets players, most of whom live with cerebral palsy and down’s syndrome, in pockets across the region on a weekly basis to practice.
The musician, who toured the world as a best-selling artist within the contemporary Christian music sphere for 25 years, has more than 400 tracks on Spotify.
He now shares his skills as a guitarist, keyboardist, singer and songwriter with his students.
Inspiration Orchestra boosts members’ self-esteem
“The idea of performing is really inherent with Inspiration Orchestra,” he says.
“Time and time again I have seen people who are disabled who never thought they would be able to perform.
“Then after the very first concert, they’re turning to me wide-eyed and asking, ‘When is the next one?’
“This really helps people’s self esteem.”
He adds: “A concert can be tiny. A concert can be 15 wee old ladies in an afternoon in a hall – but it is a concert.
“I realised that they had to be really frequent, because the rate of sickness among disabled people is much higher than the general population.
“So every six or seven weeks I’ve got a round of wee concerts.
“I can never have them all play together – I can only have them in small groups.
“At every practice they ask me, ‘When is the concert, when is the concert?’.
“But if they miss one then it’s not a big deal
“We’ll say, ‘Yes, you were sick today, but who cares, there will be another one in six or seven weeks’ time’.
What is next for Inspiration Orchestra?
One particularly big concert coming up for the group is a festival in May.
The one-day event, which is being held for the second year running at Pitmeadow Farm in Dunning, will see the orchestra perform for up to 500 people. .
Another exciting project in the works is a series of overnight stays at a fully accessible and inclusive cottage near Cupar.
Ian says he wanted to give the players a taste of the traditional “band camp experience” that so many young musicians enjoy growing up.
“We set it up for last September and did a trial three-day stay,” he says.
“It was such a success we wanted to create spaces for more people.
“In the diary now we have five three-night stays throughout the whole of September and the first week of October.”
The charity is currently raising funds to cover the cost of the trips – which are expensive due to the specialised nature of the accommodation.
The first week, which is already funded, is named after Sarah Chapman – a much-loved member of the orchestra who sadly died in 2022.
Ian didn’t even let the Covid pandemic get in the way of the group’s practice sessions.
Instead, when restrictions allowed, he travelled to players’ houses and taught them at a safe distance.
This was a lifeline for many in the group, who often had little else to do during the lockdown period.
Splitting his week between students in Perth, Dundee, Angus and Fife – for little more than a “modest fee” from the charity – is a tough gig.
What keeps him going?
‘I’ve always been a very intense person’
“I’ve always been a very intense person,” Ian explains.
“I’m just the type of person who has a very vivid imagination and drives people berserk with all my ideas – some of which don’t work.
“But ever since the day Fiona put her finger down on the keyboard, I have just been motivated.
“Some people dream – we call them dreamers – they dream about something.
“But six months after telling you about their dream, nothing has happened.
“I tend to get up the next day and just get started.”