8 July 2019 – Robert Mullen of Hamilton is a music teacher with a gift that sets him apart from other musicians.
He knows how to bring out the best in students with learning or intellectual disabilities so much so that many of his protegés have arguably become better than their master. He has helped unlock hidden treasures within them.
The research into how well creative arts such as music, dance, drama, art etc … can assist those struggling with traditional classroom subjects and settings, is so much clearer now than a generation ago, argues Robert.
Take Alex Johnsen as an example, he says.
Alex, 27, who flats in Frankton, Hamilton with friends Glen and David, has Down’s Syndrome which several years ago would have seen him institutionalised and written off.
Not now, insists Chris, his support worker from Community Living.
Alex’s life changed significantly earlier last year when Chris contacted Robert to say she thought he had some real talent musically.
“Alex would spend a lot of time at day base just writing and putting songs together,” she said.
Robert agreed to give Alex guitar lessons but halfway through the first lesson “we discovered guitaring wasn’t his strength, it was singing and rapping.”
“We just started mucking around with some stuff and I said to his mother: ‘Can I just work with what he’s got in other areas?’”
The objective was to bring out Alex’s talents, and ensure he was happy and could express himself.
They gelled. Alex’s focus heightened. After one of the lessons the two filmed “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol and put it on Facebook.
It went viral and resulted in international media attention. CBS News, People Magazine, NBC, Metro UK, and other random publications in Europe and even in Asia.
About a month after Alex’s first lesson, Robert took on another student, Robyn from Idea Services. She wanted to be able to play guitar in a kapa haka group.
Robert does not call them music lessons. “It’s mentoring expression through creativity. I just want to see them have the ability to be able to express themselves.”
He has worked with people with disabilities for nearly 18 years, has studied and has a Diploma in music, and knows how the power of music can improve people’s lives.
Earlier this year, Cameron Gregory came on board with the lessons learning the keyboard along with both Glen Terry and Julian Godfery learning drums. Thus was formed the group of friends and students and the birth of the name Robert Mullen Junior and Friends.
Alex, Robyn, Julian, Cameron and Glen work on all their own goals and projects but come together on occasions.
One of these occasions was on World Down Syndrome Day when the team took to the streets after being asked to provide entertainment at a fundraising barbecue outside The Warehouse in Hamilton Central.
“They are benefitting from the fact there is now more awareness around people with disabilities, that they can do anything. It’s a ‘so what’ attitude and that anything is possible,” says Robert.
The Facebook page continues to attract viewers as does the Youtube channel and Instagram that has been added, both under the name of Robert Mullen Junior and Friends.
From there the whole team will head to Napier on 5 October where they have been invited to perform at the opening ceremony of the International Special Needs Taekwondo Games.
Alex is confident, the others in the band are less so. That’s where Robert comes in, guiding them all to harness their talent and then letting them all shine.
“One thing about Rob is he’s a friend to me, he’s a mentor in music and a person I can trust. He is my bro,” says Alex.
“I’d rather work with these guys than the general public, they’re way more interesting,” says Robert.
There has been interest shown and Robert is open to taking more under his wing … whether it be musically or any other form of creativity. If he continues to have the same success with his protegés, then Robert Mullen Jnr and Friends could become a Super Group or even have their own TV Show.