Why there need to be more role models for disabled musicians

One-handed pianist Nicholas McCarthy on making music more inclusive

Why there need to be more role models for disabled musicians

When I was at school I didn’t get the opportunity to learn music. When I became interested in playing the piano at 14 years old, I began applying to specialist schools that shared my passion for making music and that seemed to offer the support that I would need in order to develop my playing technique. I always thought of music as a very inclusive discipline, but the first school I applied to turned me down, solely because the head teacher refused to take me seriously because I only had one hand.

It seemed ridiculous to her that I should even think about pursuing my dreams of becoming a professional pianist. The fact that this teacher saw my physicality as a barrier to music making implied that she had never heard of a disabled pianist, perhaps even a disabled musician. She had focused on what I couldn’t do without a right hand, rather than what I could do with my left hand.

I wonder how many other young people have been discouraged from music making in similar situations? In the case I just mentioned, I had been judged on my disability rather than my ability as a musician and a potential professional performer. The enthusiasm was there to start learning music, but the barrier that I faced was a lack of awareness of disabled musicians.

When I applied for the Junior Guildhall School of Music, I decided not to mention that I had one hand. I had been bitten once and wanted to enter the audition room without the selection committee having any preconceptions of what I could and could not do. To my delight, I was offered a place and the tutors were amazing. That was where I was introduced to the world of ‘left hand alone’ repertoire. My previous experience at that time had made me feel that people were not prepared to believe that disability and music can work together. It made me realise that we need a far greater understanding about what is possible. Disabled role models may not just inspire disabled people to engage with music, but also inspire others to believe in them.

People who are considered disabled can often feel limited when it comes to music. I have heard from those who are concerned about how people may react to the idea of them playing a certain instrument. The important thing is to have ambition: ambition is one of the first steps to putting your ideas into action, whatever they might be, and it is a role model who can inspire that ambition. Disabled people who want to play music will gain the confidence by seeing disabled role models. That will allow them to see themselves as musicians first and as disabled second.

I recently became a patron of arts charity Create – their motivation to provide music opportunities to disabled people, their carers and other groups who experience marginalisation really resonated with me. Create often combines music with another art form, such as drama, creative writing or visual art, so it’s a multi-sensory experience. The emphasis is on creating something collaboratively and allowing everyone to contribute something valuable. In short, no one is turned away from music making.

In November, Create will be hosting creative:space, its regular interactive music event for disabled children and their families. It’s an opportunity for these young people and their carers to see professional disabled musicians perform live. This acknowledges that it’s not just about giving people the chance to create music, it’s also about providing an accessible environment where children with special needs can get up close to professional disabled musicians.

If we want to take accessibility seriously and encourage as many people as possible to engage with music making and live performance, we need to think about how people access their role models.

There may be disabled performers in our concert halls, but opportunities to see them perform may be very limited for some. It’s not just the venue – the physical space – that the performance takes place within; it’s the assumed rules which exist within that space. creative:space presents an alternative model – it's informal, there is no expectation of silence and children can move to the music without disturbing others.

This being said, it’s difficult for disabled musicians to become role models if the opportunities and support aren’t there to become a performer, workshop leader, teacher or community support worker in the first place. I wonder, does this lack of well-known disabled musicians indicate a lack of support available to learn music? Often disabled children are much less likely to engage with the arts. In order to change this, we need to continue to raise awareness of the abilities of disabled musicians and provide everyone with the opportunity to see them in action.


Nicholas McCarthy, pianist

Watch Nicholas perform Chopin's Etude Op.25 No.12 (arr Godowsky) in the video below



creative:space for disabled children and their families takes place on Sunday 30 November at Henry Wood Hall in London. Visit: createarts.org.uk for more information

Nicholas McCarthy's Music in Remembrance tour takes place from 7 to 23 November 2014. Visit: nicholasmccarthy.co.uk for details

 Photo: Rachel Goodchild




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