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All-abilities singing group builds confidence in aspiring performers with disabilities

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When Tahj Burns is on stage singing to an audience, his shyness melts away and his confidence and charisma shine.

The 20-year-old, who lives with autism, says performing as part of an all-abilities singing group in Wauchope on the New South Wales Mid North Coast has been life-changing.

"It has given me a reason to get up on Monday morning and walk here to join these lovely people and sing," Mr Burns says.

Young man with dark hair and a beard, wearing a purple-and-white floral pattern shirt, looks at the camera with a small smile.
Tahj Burns says singing is his calling.(ABC Mid North Coast: Wiriya Sati)

His mother, Michelle Spinazza, says the confident person he has become is a far cry from the young man he was two years ago before joining the group.

"He just retreated into himself. He was on the computer a lot, not really engaging with anyone, and we wanted to try to find something for him," she says.

So she took her son to try out a group called Vocally Unique, part of the Wauchope Regional Arts Project (WRAP).

Teaching confidence

The project, which WRAP established through an NDIS Information, Linkages and Capacity Building Grant, is designed to help artists with disabilities build their confidence and skills.

It provides opportunities for participants to work with professional artists across music, and visual and performing arts, with the aim of linking them to the mainstream industry.

Vocally Unique offers a group of four participants classes with a professional voice coach.

Ian Castle, who is also the musical artistic director of the WRAP groups, mentors Mr Burns and the group.

He says Mr Burns' love of artists such Frank Sinatra is a refreshing change.

A man playing keyboard with a young man singing into a microphone
Ian Castle is mentoring Tahj Burns, helping him embrace his own singing style.(ABC Mid North Coast: Wiriya Sati)

"A lot of people these days want to sing the more modern pop, but Tahj brings the songs that are so old-school," he says.

"He's got this really baritone, resonant voice, which sets him apart from a lot of singers."

After months of practice, Mr Burns took to the stage for the first time last year at one of the group's concerts.

Onstage charisma

Ms Spinazza was nervous her son would be overwhelmed, but when he confidently got up on stage and sang, she says her heart skipped a beat.

"I had no idea he could sing, and when you hear it you go, 'Oh my gosh, you can really sing. This is amazing'," she says.

"We had his grandparents, and [his] mum and dad there. We heard him sing and we were all just sitting there sobbing and crying.

"It was just beautiful to see him shine."

A man and three women stand on stage in a line in front of a red curtain, he has a microphone
The Vocally Unique members each performed three songs at the concert.(ABC Mid North Coast: Wiriya Sati)

Mr Castle was also taken aback at Mr Burns' new-found confidence.

"His confidence and charisma on stage, he just absolutely shone," Mr Castle says.

"Off stage he's quite quiet and shy and reserved. Now he's commanding the stage whether it's in rehearsal or performance.

"These concerts are allowing him to safely put himself out there and improve his skills."

Writing his own song

The group has spurred Mr Burns on to compose his own work.

He has recently written lyrics to the tune of a lullaby his nan used to sing to him when he was growing up.

Working with Mr Castle to develop the song, they are adding an accompaniment.

Ms Spinazza says her son has gone from strength to strength since joining the group and performing at concerts.

"He's trying new things, looking at different avenues for where his voice can go and what he can do with that," she says.

"He's found his thing … and from here he can go anywhere and do anything.

"I'd love to see his voice get out there and for people to hear it because it's pretty amazing."


Source: ABC

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