Music has an ability to build bridges, open doors and help with anxiety. From the opening ceremony at the 2012 Olympics where deaf and hearing children performed the British National Anthem, to instances illustrating the positive impact of music on people with autism, this article showcases music’s ability to include and celebrates the technology now available that enables people with impairments to not only enjoy but also compose music themselves.
2012 Olympics – breaking down barriers
The 2012 Olympics saw music, as well as sport, breaking down barriers. One of the most electrifying moments in the spectacular opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics occurred, when a choir of deaf and hearing children performed the British National Anthem. The exuberance of the children summed up all the excitement, pride, and the hopes of the weeks to come.
But they also stood for something more – the power of music to include. This was not the only musical beneficiary of the Olympics’ slip-stream. Compositions created as a result of New Music 20×12 – a UK-wide commissioning programme – included an extraordinary piece entitled 'Technophonia'. Composed by Oliver Searle, it was delivered by Drake Music Scotland, a leading arts organisation providing musicmaking opportunities for people with disabilities.
'Technophonia' was performed by young musicians with and without disabilities, at venues in Glasgow, Edinburgh and London. It is scored for traditional orchestral instruments playing alongside three cutting-edge instruments, technologies – Soundbeam, Skoog and Brainfingers.
Brainfingers is a system which enables people with very limited motor control to access computer technology through muscle movement and brain activity, via a headband fitted with sensors. To highlight the demands this highly collaborative piece makes, Searle highlights Chris Jacquin – a young musician with severe cerebral palsy already making a name for himself as a composer and performer. Chris, who performed in 'Technophonia' using Brainfingers, accesses it by clicking his jaw.
Searle declares that “'Technophonia' had Olympian elements in it in more ways than one. It required a Herculean effort for someone like Chris to participate in a performance like that. It tested people to their limits, which is what I wanted. People with impairments are not often pushed, but this kind of project presents everyone with something they have to work really hard to bring off.”
Their efforts and the quality of the results were rewarded, since 'Technophonia' was nominated for two important awards – the Royal Philharmonic Society and the British Composer Awards. “We didn’t win,” says Searle, “But getting to the stage of being nominated was very important for music making by people with impairments.” A high-tech instrument also plays its part in the visits that the Orchestra of St John’s (OSJ) in London and their artistic director John Lubbock make, 50 days a year to specialist schools and day care centres.
To give his musicians a break during these sessions, John often introduces Soundbeam – a sensor technology which translates movement into sound. It is so sensitive that even the blink of an eyelid can produce a sound, to the delight of a child who wouldn’t have, perhaps, had much control over many things before.
OSJ and John Lubbock are particularly known for their work with people with autism. Lubbock is the founder of Music for Autism and, as the father of an autistic son, speaks movingly about the condition and what music can do for those who have it.
Music’s ability to melt anxiety
Lubbock claims that people with autism can find comfort under music’s influence “so that much of what makes them anxious just falls away”. Lubbock continues to describe how “Music seems to make the children get in touch with the best bits of themselves. I’ve not seen anything else, apart from music, that can do it.”
OSJ make no compromises in the music they play to these audiences. A typical programme might include Mozart and Brahms, despite a mesmerised child standing only inches away or attempting to start up a conversation. But, as Lubbock says: “The players love it – it’s deeply moving.” Music for Autism also operates in the United States. The focus there is on free concerts held at their centres in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Houston. The emphasis on musical quality is the same – all their performers are professional, and the range of genres is wide.
US founder Robert Accordino says of their first concert in New York in 2014: “We were thrilled to have Broadway performers from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 'Cinderella' here. It was possibly the most interactive and inclusive concert we have ever had!”
Tears in our eyes
Other recent performances have included La Familia Afro Caribbean jazz sextet and previous concerts have introduced youngsters with autism to classical music.
Also in New York, where 30% of the audience is Spanish speaking, publicity materials are now in Spanish as well as English and the concerts are presented bilingually in real time. Over in Houston, programme co-ordinator Jade Simmons, is pushing the envelope in terms of types of music – a recent performance by flamenco group Solero Flamenco was enthusiastically received by its audience. It is the families as much as the participating children, who appreciate the liberation – albeit fleeting perhaps – that such programmes deliver.
A New York mother of Ethan, aged 7, gives her heart-felt tribute to the power of music. “My husband and I have never been able to go to an event and sit back and watch Ethan from afar like that,” she says. “And there he was — participating and being himself and it was okay. Outings are usually filled with stress and trepidation (on my part) and often it’s too hard for Ethan (like most recently when we went to a performance of Frosty the Snowman and had to leave the theatre at the intermission).
“So it was really something for us to watch him in a concert — my husband and I had tears in our eyes. Afterwards, Ethan looked at me and said: 'Happy!' That was really incredible.“Mother of 7-year-old Ethan