The Gramophone blog

Disability and the right to make music: why we can’t afford to get complacent

Timmy FisherTue 4th September 2018

There should be no barriers for anyone who wants to make music

I was recently heartened to discover that the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra has become the world’s first professional orchestra to form an ensemble made up of entirely disabled musicians. The group, led by conductor James Rose (who has Cerebral Palsy), joins a rising number of ensembles in the UK committed to promoting musical excellence within the disabled. One such ensemble is the Bristol-based South-West Open Youth Orchestra, set up by Barry Farrimond of the charity OpenUp Music, who, through the orchestra, and the development of bespoke instruments for the disabled such as the Clarion (controlled by the musician’s eyes), is working hard to boost inclusivity within music. Also being launched in September is the National Open Youth Orchestra, which hopes to build upon the success of the SWOYO and ‘radically redefine the idea of “The Orchestra”.’

But while these are encouraging developments, it is important not become complacent over a movement that has only just begun to gain momentum. There is still a way to go, not only in dispelling the myth that the disability arts are ‘worthy’ rather than ‘high quality’, but in continuing to fight for the disabled’s right to make music. Certainly in the UK this may seem as basic as a right to free healthcare (another maxim that may soon prove controversial), but set against recent and worrying developments in the educational climate, it faces a very real threat. The last few months have seen a wave of outrage against government ‘squeezing’ of creative subjects from state schools, such as the alma mater of one Sheku Kanneh-Mason - undoubtably one of the most exciting young cellists the UK has seen for decades. Kanneh-Mason himself donates money to Trinity School in Nottingham, which, like many others across the country, is being forced to make budget cuts that are directly affecting music departments. Furthermore, with ever-increasing pressure on GCSE students to take the English Baccalaureate (which does not include any arts subjects), state school music is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. A 2017 research project by Sussex University’s School of Education and Social Work found that just 50 out of 657 state schools surveyed offer Music BTEC (down from 166 in 2013), and for students aged 13 to 14 music was compulsory in just 62%. Government OFQUAL figures show just 35,895 students took GCSE music in 2018 compared to 43,667 in 2015, and one school - Bingley Grammar - has even been charging students £5 a week to take after school music theory classes.

Worrying statistics indeed, and, as Chief Executive of Arts Council England Darren Henley points out: ‘It’s a necessity that these subjects are taught as part of the curriculum. If we shift cultural education to the margins, making it an extra curricular activity, those from the poorest socio-economic background will be the most likely to miss out.’ This rings especially true for the 13.3m disabled people in the UK (that’s nearly one in five). The annual cost of bringing up a disabled child is three times greater than for a non-disabled child, and the average income for a family with a disabled child is just £15,270. For those children who want instrumental tuition, parents must consider not only the cost of private lessons (in London you can expect to pay up to £40 an hour) but the hefty expense of adapted instruments. Professor of Saxophone at the University of Nebraska, David Nabb, plays a sax specially adapted for one hand after a stroke left him paralysed on one side of his body - but the instrument took a year to make, and cost £20,000. So the odds for a young disabled saxophonist are already heavily stacked against, and when you consider the barriers alone, it seems almost remarkable that projects like the SWOYO and NOYO are continuing to emerge. 

The issue also lies partly in training and attitudes towards the disabled within our schools. A huge number of peripatetic music teachers receive no formal teacher training, having originally studied performance at conservatoires - aspiring professional players that rely on giving lessons to pay the bills whilst they chase orchestral careers. Neither are peripatetics offered training from the schools they visit, so learning to effectively teach disabled students requires taking courses of their own volition. Knowing many time-strapped peripatetics myself, I can assure you this is much easier said than done. Even amongst permanent school staff, training is often meagre and attitudes can be painfully obtuse. According to Kris Haplin, who has Cerebral Palsy and delivers music lessons in schools, there is still a long way to go in battling stigma amongst teachers, although things have thankfully moved on since his school days - in a blog post for the charity Drake Music he shares a chilling memory: ‘I spent most of Key Stage 4 largely in isolation in a ground floor room, work solemnly delivered to me by fellow students as each bell rang.’

But its difficult to shake the stigma attached to disability, and in turn inspire students who are disabled, when so few of the educational workforce are disabled themselves - or at least reveal themselves to be. Department for Education figures show that only 0.5% of teachers identify as disabled, and only 4% of the wider arts workforce identify as disabled. If we can encourage more disabled adults into teaching roles, and those already teaching to be upfront about their disabilities, perhaps in turn we can inspire more disabled students. As Haplin writes: ‘I knew what it would have meant at 14 to see a disabled person teaching my class.’

Whilst not so visibly, those with dyslexia are also facing barriers to music-making. As one of the most prevalent Specific Learning Difficulties, dyslexia affects 10% of the population, and for musicians can cause extreme difficulty when reading scores (as well as problems with short-term memory and cognitive function). Dyslexics suffer from ‘visual stress’ - a blurring or glare from the page that can lead to headaches. Visual stress can be dramatically improved by overlaying colour tinted, transparent sheets on top of music (or by sporting a John Lennon-esque pair of tinted spectacles), and modifying stave notation to make it larger and more in proportion. There is plenty of excellent and readily available software proven to help dyslexics overcome these difficulties, however, just a fraction of schools are investing in it. Despite notable success stories from dyslexic classical musicians - Nigel Kennedy, Lindsey Stirling to name two - without proper support, many aspiring musicians with similar potential can become bogged down in our heavily notation-based teaching tradition.

But this shouldn’t just be about helping those disabled with star-potential into the limelight, but also - perhaps even more importantly - to encourage music-making amongst those who will happily admit they aren’t destined for the concert hall. The idea that music is of huge social benefit is not a new one - and something that countless amateur musicians across the world will attest to. But active involvement from a very early age has also been proven to boost development in other areas. Research by Usha Goswami, Professor of Cognitive Developmental Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, has found evidence that introducing children to music and rhythm could help them prepare for reading and writing, as well as combating dyslexia: 'Having an enriched musical environment in nursery should prepare the child for optimal ability in reading because a lot of this rhythmic learning is much more overt in music than language.’

A similar five-year study by neuroscientists at the University of Southern California followed 13 children aged six to seven, all enrolled on a Youth Orchestra Los Angeles programme. The children were monitored with MRI scans and EEG to track electrical activity in brains, and within two years were found to have auditory systems more mature than children who had not been receiving musical instruction. They had increased ‘neuroplasticity’ (the ability of the brain to adapt to its environment): further evidence for the importance of a musical upbringing, whether disabled or not. Yo-Yo Ma summarises rather eloquently: ‘Music enhances the education of our children by helping them to make connections and broadening the depth with which they think and feel. If we are to hope for a society of culturally literate people, music must be a vital part of our children's education.’

So what can be done to ensure that the next generation of disabled musicians are given better access to opportunities, and that projects like the SWOYO and the NOYO don’t dry up through lack of eager participants or disabled role models? With school music quickly becoming a thing of the past, are we to rely on Music Hubs - independent, community-run organisations, also funded by the Department of Education - to provide the facilities, instruments and instruction required to make a difference? Certainly the hubs won’t be receiving any more money with which to do so. Schools minister Nick Gibb has rejected requests to increase funding, last year confirming in a letter to Darren Henley that it would maintain the £75m annual budget for at least the next four years, before offering: ‘No funding formula is perfect.’

There is, thankfully, some incredible work being done by charities like Drake Music, who run outreach and education initiatives for the disabled, such as free composition workshops and their weekly music-making group ‘Absorbed by Sound’. They also offer training and consultancy for schools and hubs (a summary of best practice for SEN/D music provision can be found on their website), as well as carrying out research into new, accessible musical instruments for disabled musicians. The OHMI Trust (pronounced ‘oh-me’) is another such charity, committed to pioneering the development of adapted instruments. Their yearly competition seeks to award new designs for instruments that can be performed at virtuoso level, and this September will be hosting a conference exploring the barriers to music faced by the disabled.

But what can we do, other than donating directly to these charities ourselves? The first step is to dispel any remaining stigma surrounding disability. Once you understand what a disabled musician is actually capable of, you are far more likely to take them and the disabled arts seriously, thereby creating a willing audience for their music. Take the experiences of former professional trumpeter Clarence Adoo, who was left paralysed from the neck down after a car crash in 1995. He now plays the Hi-Note - an electronic instrument linked to a headset which is blown into - and when given the opportunity to play with jazz students at the Guildhall School of Music, he so impressed everybody present that a tour was suggested.

So when you tune into the Proms this summer, or the next time you go to a school concert or even when covering your ears to muffle the blasts of the enthusiastic trumpeter upstairs, take a moment to consider those who cannot take part - those still battling for their right to make music - because music, as John Rutter writes, ‘is at the heart of what makes us human.’

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