Hosted by Bristol Music Trust in the newly re-ramped Colston Hall, the purpose of the conference on 3 July was to take an honest and much-needed look at the inequity of the music industry and address the many barriers that exist for disabled people who want to participate in and listen to the best music available.
With a sizzling line-up of delegates, speakers and guest musicians the atmosphere in The Lantern was sociable, upbeat and I got a genuine sense that everyone was really excited to be there, from local heros Art and Power to the dedicated few who had made it from Scotland for the day.
Facilitated by Richard Hallam, music educator extraordinaire, the focus for discussion was around the provocation that the musical world discriminates against disabled people. And that if we don’t act to create change we are endorsing negative attitudes.
Candoco Dance’s Stine Nilsen gave a lovely key note to open on how we include diversity at every level of development; on the rebels and pioneers of dance, particularly Martha Graham, and a challenge to programmers to confidently include disability arts in their programming.
Confidence in programming and education were hot topics, from both Paul Whittaker building on Stine’s points with crowd-pleasing frankness and humour, and with bold calls from composer and Sound=Space inventor Rolf Gelhaar to teach children improvisation before standard chord structures to bring out their creativity and increase participation.
The strain under which music teachers are already was widely acknowledged, particularly to deliver informed electronic and tech-based skills, often leaving disabled students at a disadvantage.
Given the amazing array of adaptive and brilliant music-making tools on display; from a one-handed toggle-key sax played gorgeously by Dr David Nabb, to Charlotte White’s multi-device ‘Larlie’ laptop system, and Rolf Gelhaar’s Headspace played by Clarence Adoo in the British Paraorchestra it would seem that “all you need is a piece of kit” as proposed by the One Handed Instrument Trust.
But deeper examination of this came back to education and societal attitudes to music-making and teaching. As technology develops so quickly how can teachers deliver virtuosic skills? Is it better to encourage students to shun grades and formal education and to develop music on their own terms?
Group discussions between delegates produced ideas to lobby exam boards and publicly funded institutions to provide music courses for disabled students, to invite young people to events like the conference to include their views, that broader definitions of ‘music’ and ‘musicality’ would progress thinking in this area, and that to be taken seriously and have equality of access disabled musicians must be producing better, stronger work.
Exactly HOW this final point is best achieved was left open, and I was reminded of an oft-quoted phrase in gender and race discussions: “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have”, which can feel a little grim.
Progress and glad tidings were in no short supply however: Siggy Patchitt from Bristol Plays Music announced a 3-year mission to ‘ banish 'inclusion' in favour of fairness and essential diversity’. Gideon Feldman of Attitude is Everything cited over 100 UK music venues signing up to their Charter of Best Practice and the resultant increase in event ticket sales and announcements from delegates of the Paul Hamlyn ‘Inspire Music for All’ project and the UWE aphasia choir starting up.
Overall, a great day for networking and rallying compatible forces for good, followed by fabulous performances from the British Paraorchestra.