by Author Barry Farrimond

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The social model of disability and music

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

This isn't unusual, there’s loads of pieces of music that I can’t play, mainly owing to a lack of time to practice. 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.

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-curb. 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.

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 Orchestra 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 of our 'Open School Orchestra' work, which 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 3 mouth pieces. 

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.

In realising our 'Open Youth Orchestra' work we have had to broaden the orchestral arsenal some what. Whilst many of our musicians do play more conventional musical instruments (including violins, percussion, horns and even a flemish harpsichord) we often have to come up with something a little more bespoke. Sometimes this means sourcing musical instruments that have been designed with accessibility in mind, for example the Skoog or the Soundbeam®. But sometimes it also requires OpenUp Music to create entirely new musical instruments, ones that can be played independently using any part of a musician's body including their head, feet or even by tracking their eye movements.

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? What new music will the social model of disability help us discover and enjoy? It's going to be exciting finding out.