Musicstage Opening up music

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  • Posted By : Musicstage
  • Posted On : Sep 05, 2016
  • Views : 206
  • Category : Features
  • Description : Barry Farrimond, Managing Director of UK social enterprise, OpenUp Music, challenges conventional thinking about disability

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  • Music is really rather wonderful stuff. I've got some on in the background now, a variation of Schubert's G flat major Impromptu. It's an incredibly beautiful piece but one that I'll never be able to play.


    This isn't unusual – there are loads of pieces of music that I can't play, mainly owing to a lack of time to practise. But this piece is different: it's not a lack of time that's holding me back, it's a lack of fingers. Arranged by Michael Nyman for the 1997 film, Gattaca, Impromptu for 12 Fingers is structured in such a way that only someone with 12 extremely dexterous fingers could ever be able to play it. This rather unusual prerequisite makes this a piece of music that disables pretty much everyone.

    If you're a wheelchair user, the social model argues that you aren't disabled until society disables you

    I'd like to use this to frame something that I hope will challenge you to think about disability (and the ways in which people can be disabled) completely differently – the 'social model' of disability. This liberating world view states that disability arises from the way that society is organised as opposed to any particular impairment an individual may have. For example, if you're a wheelchair user, the social model argues that you aren't disabled until society disables you – perhaps by insisting that you use a flight of stairs or by failing to provide you with an adequate drop-kerb. Similarly, if you're a pianist with 10 fingers, you might not feel disabled until someone asks you to play a piece of music that requires 12.


    Awaiting her cue. A young musician plays an adapted violin as part of the UK's first Open School Orchestras performance at Bristol's Colston Hall in 2015. Photo © Sarah Bentley 2015

    Many of the young musicians we work with are disabled by a near total lack of provision and access to youth orchestras

    At OpenUp Music, the social model of disability informs pretty much everything we do. We have a very simple mission – we want to open youth orchestras, musical instruments and musical repertoire to young musicians who often find themselves disabled by such things.

    We find that many of the young musicians we work with are disabled by a near total lack of provision and access to youth orchestras. In 2014, the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) identified, as part of their Youth Ensembles Survey Report, 1,240 UK music ensembles. However, there is no mention of any providing access for musicians with additional support needs. Orchestras within 'special' schools are also few and far between – in fact, we've not found a single one outside our Open School Orchestras work, which has established (as far as we know) the UK's first six special school orchestras.



    Of course, you can't have an orchestra if your musicians don't have anything to play on. Musical instruments can be pretty inaccessible things at the best of times – anyone who has tried learning one will attest to that. Naturally, the challenge of learning an instrument is par for the course – we don't expect excellence in anything worthwhile without a little hard graft. But, for many musicians, not being able to play a conventional musical instrument isn't a matter of how hard they intend to work, it's like being asked to blow a saxophone with three mouthpieces.

    One example of how conventional instruments can disable people is that they tend to require dexterous fingers (or at least digits as demonstrated by French Horn player, Felix Klieser, who plays using his toes). If you are a budding musician who experiences restricted dexterity or mobility, this can present a barrier that no amount of dedication or hard work will traverse. The trouble is that most conventional musical instruments are actually pretty static things – their sound dictates the way they are formed and that dictates the shapes you need to put yourself into to play them. You have to adapt to them, not the other way round.


    Cutting-edge assistive music technology. An Open School Orchestra member plays a bespoke iPad instrument as part of the Bristol Colston Hall performance in 2015. Photo © Sarah Bentley 2015

    In realising our Open School Orchestra work, we have had to broaden the orchestral arsenal somewhat. Whilst many of our musicians do play more conventional musical instruments (including violins, percussion, horns and even a Flemish harpsichord), we often have to develop something a little more bespoke. Open Musical Instruments is our ongoing research and development programme. Working in close partnership with disabled musicians, we create instruments that are accessible, expressive and affordable. As a consequence of this work, our Open School Orchestras have included musicians who are able to play a musical instrument by moving any part of their body including their head, eyebrows or even by tracking their eye movements.



    What playing techniques will musicians who control instruments with their eyes and not their fingers come up with?

    The final piece of the puzzle is musical repertoire. As our Musical Director, Doug Bott, has observed, 'for the most part, the musical repertoire handed down to us has been created by non-disabled people to be played by non-disabled people'.

    For some, this existing musical repertoire can be as disabling as Impromptu for 12 Fingers is to me. At OpenUp Music, we like to view this as an opportunity. New musical instruments have always ushered in new ways to play and compose music. What playing techniques will musicians who control instruments with their eyes and not their fingers come up with? What will the compositions that embrace these playing techniques sound like? In September 2015, OpenUp Music launched the South-West Open Youth Orchestra, the UK's first disabled-led regional youth orchestra. Perhaps the answers to these questions are just around the corner.


    As the final notes fade away, a member of OrcheStar celebrates. Photo © Sarah Bentley 2015

    Header photo: Members of OrcheStar, a disabled-led youth orchestra established by OpenUp Music at the National Star College in 2014. © OpenUp Music 2015

    About OpenUp Music

    OpenUp Music has a simple mission – to open youth orchestras, musical instruments and musical repertoire to young disabled musicians. Since 2013, OpenUp Music has established six school orchestras at SEN schools, working in partnership with young disabled musicians to design and create accessible, affordable, expressive musical instruments that can be played with a finger, a foot or even by moving your eyes.

    In Autumn 2015, OpenUp Music launched the South-West Open Youth Orchestra, the UK's first disabled-led regional youth orchestra. The organisation aims to establish the first disabled-led national youth orchestra by 2018.

    Supporting OpenUp Music

    OpenUp Music is the only organisation currently creating disabled-led youth orchestras in the UK. The organisation relies on the support of companies, trusts, foundations and generous donations from the general public to open up musical opportunities to young disabled musicians. OpenUp Music is currently working to launch the National Open Youth Orchestra by 2018, the world’s first disabled-led national youth orchestra.

    If you would like to support OpenUp Music's valuable work, please visit the organisation's website.