Performance and physical impairment: Making music accessible

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Throughout history, musical instruments have traditionally been designed for performers with a clear assumption in mind: every individual has two hands, ten fingers and equal functionality across those digits. This bias towards non-disabled performers has typically made certain instruments and musical styles inaccessible to musicians who do not satisfy these prescriptive criteria.

We spoke to Rachel Wolffsohn from The OHMI Trust and​ Barry Farrimond-Chuong​​ ​from Open Up Music, to understand the biggest barriers to inclusion and explore opportunities to involve more young people in the subject​ ​ regardless of their physical capabilities, ​opening ​​ ​access to the numerous creative and social benefits associated with studying music.

The main barriers to music education for young​ disabled​ people with physical ​impairments​​

There are two main barriers to music education for young​ disabled​ people with physica​l​​ ​​ impairments​. The first is the practical barrier of instrument design. The second is related to preconceived notions of what physically disabled students are capable of.

The main purpose of The OHMI Trust is to address the former barrier, by adapting and developing new instruments for performers with physical impairments. In a similar vein, Open Up Music​ developed the Clarion accessible instrument, as well as ensemble and performance opportunities for young ​disabled musicians. ​Farrimond-Chuong ​also points to ‘fixed​, rigid​ repertoire’​ as another​​ ​​​ ​​​ ​ common problem​ ​limit​ing​​ ​the potential ​to have a greater ​diversity of instruments ​being played in​​ ​orchestras​​. Farrimond-Chuong has​ also suggested ​​​​the need for​​ disabled representation and musical ​role model​s​ for ​young disabled people, their families and teachers. Speaking from her own personal experience, Rachel Wolffsohn describes how societal expectations can have a significant impact on student participation in music:

​​“​As a parent of a child with a disability, there are so many things you’re told they can't do…so many things that are difficult.”

The role of technological innovation in musical accessibility

The OHMI Trust use physical technology to adapt instruments in innovative ways, making them more accessible to a larger number of players. They have​ worked with instrument makers and technologists to ​ produce​ ​ several one-handed instruments, including recorders, clarinets, and saxophones, alongside stands and mounts for instruments such as the trumpet and trombone, which also facilitate one-handed performance. Digital technology has an increasing role to play in the development of these physical adaptations, particularly the use of 3D printing. 3D-printing adapted instruments enables the trust to confront another significant barrier at the point of entry – the cost. The production of prototypes and single instruments is very expensive, but through the 3D printing process​,​ ​ ​production of instruments​ can be scaled up​, particularly entry-level instruments for first-time performers. This enables OHMI to create more affordable instruments for music services, schools and individuals, which will ultimately give more students the opportunity to engage with practical music making both now and in the future.

​​Technical innovation has also been a key factor in Open Up Music’s ability to​ offer the award-winning Clarion, an instrument that can be played with any part of the body including eye movement. It has powered Open Up Music’s ​​​special schools programme​​ ​​Open Orchestras and ​the National Open Youth Orchestra (NOYO)​ - ​​the world’s first disabled-led national youth orchestra​, which​ pionee​rs​​ ​ an inclusive orchestra model where talented 11-25 year-old disabled and non-disabled musicians rehearse and perform together. ​​​

​​Developed in collaboration with ​young disabled people and their teachers, ​the Clarion​ ​electronic ​instrument ​can be played using mouse or finger touch, but also head movement or eye movement, says​ Farrimond-Chuong, adding​​:

​​​“What makes the Clarion unique is that the musician can alter every conceivable element of the instrument. This includes the sound the instrument makes; the number of notes that are available to play; the shape, position and colour of the notes; and crucially which part of the body is used to play it. The crucial difference is that the instrument adapts to the musician, not the other way around.”​​ ​​

The Clarion is​ ​played alongside conventional instruments ​in inclusive orchestras, ​enabling young disabled people to shape their own musical experiences, not just as listeners of music, but as musicians.

Alongside the Clarion, several other digital instruments exist that enable physically impaired students to engage in both classroom music and ensembles. The Artiphon Instrument One is a MIDI controller that lets you strum, bow, tap, slide, and drum any sound on a single interface. Similarly, the LinnStrument, developed by Roger Linn, is another expressive MIDI controller that enables performers to slide in pitch directly from one note to another, tilt your finger forward/backward for subtle timbral variation, and vary note loudness with pressure or velocity.

For music teachers, these instruments present exciting new opportunities, as their adaptive digital nature makes them flexible for use across a range of styles and contexts, including whole-class teaching.

Supporting students and enabling participation

According to Wolffsohn, a lack of understanding about the needs of physically impaired students is halting progress in the classroom:

“The main barrier is probably lack of knowledge by the professionals that are working with them [physically impaired students]; it isn’t teachers not wanting to do the right thing, but it's teachers not knowing what the right thing is to do.”

​​In 2019​, 88% of the​ 35,627 children in England identified as having a physical disability as their primary need, attended mainstream schools. ​With​ fewer than two ​of these ​students per school on average​, ​many teachers have​n’t had​ the experience ​to develop an​ understanding ​of their needs.​ Wolffsohn goes on to explain the importance of finding the right equipment for disabled musicians, stressing that this is key to their involvement in meaningful musical experiences:

“It's just about finding the right piece of equipment, the right instrument, the right supportive apparatus. Then the world is your oyster and there's no reason why you can't get through.”

Whilst the purchase of adapted instruments is still relatively expensive, The OHMI Trust run their own instrument hire scheme for these instruments. This scheme helps teachers and students find affordable equipment that has the exciting potential to facilitate participation in music for the first time.

Sharing knowledge about available support for students with physical ​impairments ​​is pivotal. As Wolffsohn points out, teachers should not be frightened about engaging specialist organisations in conversation, as failure to do so can often lead to inaction: ‘Sometimes teachers think they need to know what to do, and they don't, so they do nothing’. Every student and context is different, so practitioners should be encouraged to seek guidance that can facilitate participation of all students in their classroom.

For more information about hiring adapted instruments from The OHMI Trust, you can explore their instrument hire scheme. ​11-25 year old musicians ​​​can apply for​ an audition with​ NOYO, provided they can get to one of its regional centres, which are currently located in London, Bournemouth, Birmingham, Bristol, and Cardiff. For further information about supporting young people with physical impairments to engage in practical music making, please visit The OHMI Trust and Open Up Music websites.

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