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FEATURE | Classical Music, Ableism & Accommodations

By Anya Wassenberg on November 10, 2021


American violinist Rachel Barton Pine recently announced she would be performing seated, as a soloist, in the future.

Pine sustained extended injuries in an accident with a Chicago commuter train in 1994 which luckily did not affect her ability to play. Now, however, her medical prognosis is that she will be non-ambulatory for the foreseeable future. This comes after more than 50 surgeries over the years, and a regimen of physical therapy in a sustained effort to keep ambulatory.

In any other field, it would be a matter between Pine and HR. In the world of classical music, it made headlines.

Percussionist Melissa Martin writes in The Sociological Review (July 2020) about an incident that occurred during an orchestra rehearsal. During a quieter section of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, she had a muscle spasm while adjusting a triangle, and it fell to the floor with a loud clang.

The conductor made a sarcastic comment, and she endured the glares of fellow musicians. As she writes,

“Whether my fellow musicians understood the event as mere clumsiness, a lack of necessary caution, or a direct result of my disability, the disapproval in their glares was blatantly obvious. To them, I was second-rate, lacking in the skill necessary for classical musicianship through my lack of bodily discipline. This is because musical skill is often taken as technical control over one’s instrument as an extension of the body; a mastery of moving the body in close connection with one’s instrument in avoidance of any forces beyond the music itself.”

Nicholas McCarthy, pianist who happens to have only one hand, performs Etude Op.25 no.12 ‘Ocean’ Chopin arr Godowsky.

If there is any focus on disability when it comes to classical music artists, it’s more likely to be on the exceptions who overcame the hurdles imposed by the onset of disabilities of various kinds.

That includes our namesake, Ludwig van Beethoven, who wrote some of his most beloved and best known works long after he’d completely lost his hearing.

There are other examples.

British pianist Nick van Bloss lives with Tourette’s Syndrome, and abandoned his promising career because of the difficulties it posed at one point. He made a much touted comeback to the stage in 2009, but in 2018, published an open letter to six of the UK’s top orchestras, wondering if they were afraid to hire him because of his condition.

Life for a disabled musician isn’t only more difficult on stage; it makes travel more onerous too. Back in 2014, renowned violinist Itzahk Perlman, who uses a mobility scooter as a result of childhood polio, filed a complaint with Air Canada after the disability assistant assigned to him abandoned him at customs.

In other genres, while accommodations aren’t necessarily routine, and in most cases improvised, there is less resistance to the use of alternative ways of playing music. Django Reinhardt became a renowned guitarist despite a paralyzed leg and hand left only partially functional after a horrific fire in a caravan where he lived. Notably, he taught himself how to use the index and middle fingers to compensate for the damaged areas of his left hand.

After jazz piano virtuoso Oscar Peterson had a stroke, it affected his left hand. Electronic musician Richard Eric Kaplan worked with Peterson to develop his facility with electronics and how to use technology to his advantage. According to Kaplan’s father, the late electronic musician spent many weekends working with Oscar to help him continue to make music with his reduced mobility.

Music education

Saskatchewan guitarist Dillon Gazandlare came up with his own device using none other than duct tape. The 17-year-old’s talent is not in dispute.

Why did he have to persevere so hard to come up with his own solutions?

Treating disability in the realm of music as an after thought, rather than progressively looking for inclusion, has a cost. When it comes to education, disabled students are routinely left out of the loop when it comes to instrumental music, or playing in ensembles.

Perhaps most telling, while the Royal Conservatory of Music has a policy of accommodating any request, the fact is that there is no record of anyone asking for accommodations for any disability. The University of Toronto Faculty of Music was unable to provide any information on the subject.

In a world where a concert violinist has to make a major announcement about sitting down to play, it’s not surprising that disabled students might simply assume that the door is closed to them.

ASD — a musical gift

Neurodivergence may be more of a gift than a disability when it comes to music. There are multiple examples of gifted musicians with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), like Michael Fuller, whose virtuosic talent for opera and piano emerged as a preteen.

He could play Mozart sonatas by ear at age 11, and taught himself to play the piano with a mobile phone app. He calls his gift “downloading” music into his head as he listens to it.

He wrote the song Great is the Grief at age 14.

Toronto’s Glenn Gould is often thought to have shared that gift. Testing for ASD wasn’t even developed until well after his death.

Derek Paravicini is the Duchess of Cornwall’s nephew, and a brilliant pianist who is also both blind and ASD. He’s been nicknamed “the human iPod” because he can play music after hearing it a single time.

The ASD brain seems to have the ability to absorb a piece of music systematically, with a hyper-sensitivity to pitch.

The audience experience

The world of classical music places unique demands on its audiences as well as performers. People are expected to remain as still and as quiet as humanly possible for the duration of the performance, something that’s just not possible for some.

The TSO had its first ever “relaxed” concert for neurodivergent audiences in April 2019. During the concert, patrons were able to get up and walk around if they needed to, with sound dampening equipment if needed, among other accommodating details.

The Royal Conservatory of Music took a proactive approach to making their facilities accessible to as broad an audience as possible. The organization benefited from the expertise of a wheelchair-bound consultant who taught them how to reconsider the ways spaces are used and accessed from the seemingly minor details to the larger experience.

“These tiny changes in a way, they are profound,” notes General Manager, Aida Aydinyan.

All department heads were given hands-on training, and a 5-year accessibility plan was put into place. The lesson learned: it takes action and forethought, and the advice of experts who know.

Solutions are out there

There is a different way forward. Essentially, it involves ditching an insistence on the use of traditional instruments and rigid technique only, and making use of available technology.

Every differently-abled person has their own requirements, and each type of disability its own parameters. Sometimes, that changes the experience for the musician. Reading Braille scores is quite a different experience than reading music as a sighted musician. Fundamentally, the idea of high and low pitches, which are spaced as such on a staff, is affected. Notes are created with raised dots in Braille, losing the high/low concept.

DIAMI is a newer digital solution for visually impaired musicians. It transmits infrared signals from the conductor’s baton directly to a bracelet worn by the musician.

Other solutions seem obvious, but require the necessary impetus. Some software used for composition, such as Cubase, which is used by many educational facilities, is incompatible with the screen readers typically used by visually impaired musicians.

The Me2/Orchestra, based in Boston, is the only classical music organization devoted to accommodating musicians with mental health issues in an entirely stigma-free environment. With no auditions, musicians at any level can participate in whatever way is possible.

For Nancy-Lee Mauger, a French horn player with dissociative identity disorder, it meant being able to return to playing. With multiple personalities, one of them does not know how to play the instrument. If that personality emerges during a rehearsal or performance, she can simply get up and leave — with no stigma.

The orchestra was created in 2011 by music director and conductor Ronald Braunstein and his wife, Caroline Whiddon. Braunstein had once been fired from a conducting job after he disclosed his bipolar disorder.

Progress is being made on several fronts in the UK, with a number of organizations dedicated to changing the landscape when it comes to differently-abled musicians.

  • British Paraorchestra, a world first as the only large-scale virtuoso level ensemble for professional musicians of any ability. Accommodations are made for any musician, including the use of digital and assistive instruments along with the traditional orchestral ones.
  • National Open Youth Orchestra, another world first as a disabled-led national youth orchestra. The ensemble was launched in 2018 for the purpose of providing a career-level trajectory for 11-25 year-old disabled and non-disabled musicians. Some of the musicians play instruments such as the Clarion, which can be played using any part of the body — including via eye movements.
  • The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra BSO Resound is a professional ensemble led by disabled conductor James Rose. The ensemble looks not only to perform, but commission works specifically for its members.

On a country-wide level, the National Centre for Inclusive Excellence, (NCIE), established by Bristol Music Trust, is dedicated to re-imagining both the music and educational industries with a view to removing the barriers to participation at all levels.

OpenUp Music is an organization focused on creating learning and performance opportunities for young disabled musicians. They are responsible for developing the Clarion, an accessible instrument that’s available on iPad or PC, and can be played with great expressive capabilities by anyone, using any part of the body. That includes any minor gestures, and even eye movements. The Clarion won an award in 2020.

In the end, it boils down to this: everyone deserves to have the experience of being able to play music, and it shouldn’t fall to the disabled themselves to provide the solutions.


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