Kris Halpin: From Classroom To Main Stage @ Love Music Trust’s Music Education Conference 2017

I’ve enjoyed a couple of quiet months at the start of 2017 – very welcome after the whirlwind of touring my live show throughout 2016. But after a relaxed Jan & Feb, it was time to put the gloves back on! March brought with it several big events; a couple of tour dates in London and Nottingham followed by another conference appearance representing Drake Music, this time for the Lovemusic Trust’s Music Education Conference 2017. The Lovemusic Trust is a partner and fund holder for Cheshire East’s music education hub. Naturally, I was there to talk about music in a SEN/D context, and my work with Drake Music. I’m doing these kind of events more and more nowadays; I feel Douglas Noble (who leads the current Think2020 project I’m working within) and I have really zoned in on what aspects of my journey prove both useful and compelling. Originally I started attending events to show my work with the gloves in an R&D/technology context. I found myself naturally referring back to the challenges I faced in accessing music as a child, and it was soon struck by how much these anecdotes resonated. The conversation has evolved and arrived at a very interesting (and occasionally provocative!) intersection between, music, accessibility, ableism and (hopefully) a positive message to move forward with.

I felt very comfortable riffing on these subjects with audiences, but I’ve attempted to formalise my discussion with a firm title and structure ahead of this event. This presentation is now called From Classroom To Mainstage: A Journey Of Enabling Artistic Vision, Highlighting the Need for Creative Diversity. So how does this ever-so-catchy title break down?

Hopefully the “Classroom to Mainstage” bit sets the scene for the timeline of this journey. My desires and ambitions as a musician go back a very long way. Influenced by my parent’s love of music, and especially by my father’s guitar playing, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have some sort of musical vision. My vision was there, in the classroom as a young child, but inevitably, so were the access barriers. I remember learning the Glockenspiel around age 6, and while I felt I immediately understood the instrument, I struggled in pain with an access barrier; we were expected to sit cross legged on the floor to play the thing – pretty tricky to do when you’re wobbling about with Cerebral Palsy. It seems inconceivable now that such an obvious access barrier was disregarded, but there you go. We’re also aware that this is the sort of thing that brings healthy provocation to the presentation; it quite rightly frustrates audiences members, and further reinforces their own desire to enact change. It offers a clear vantage from which to see how things can go wrong. And of course, we’re setting up the happy ending from the get go; that kid with CP who struggled so much to access music education *did* grow up to be a famous rock star after all… *winks*

The ‘enabling’ bit is part of my big drive at the moment within my work with Drake Music; to push the message that everyone meeting young people with disabilities in this context can and absolutely should be open and ready to identify needs and enable music making. That’s because my own career was changed immeasurably by positive, enabling action, so I understand the power of that influence. I want teachers to feel empowered to make that kind of positive change. And, for me, that change came from Drake Music.

I don’t say this for dramatic effect; I was really on the ropes only a couple of years ago. Riddled with stage fright that was based in this frightening deterioration in my playing ability, it was almost time to tap out. Of course, you know the story; Drake Music to Imogen Heap to Cyborg Rock Star From The Future, but this wasn’t just a stroke of luck from out of nowhere. There were clear, identifiable, repeatable stages to how we arrived here:

Identifying the creative vision: I’d made contact with Drake Music via twitter, just in a vague hope that they could do something to help me. Despite all the challenges, I had put some high quality work out into the world, and that didn’t go unnoticed. This was my first introduction to my dear friend and now colleague Gawain Hewitt, who led R&D at DM. He’d seen my music video Hand At Emotion, and he sent me a lovely email about how great he thought it was, and I was bouncing off the wheels. Somebody got it! And not just anybody, somebody who understood both my talents and my challenges. Gawain believed in me, and he saw potential in me at a time when (it seemed to me at least) that nobody else did.

Reframing the Challenges: I got to know Drake Music a bit better through Danny Braverman, who invited me to a jam day session with other musicians with disabilities from across the UK. That in itself was extraordinary; I’d never met another musician with a disability before, let alone a room full of them! This was a powerful context in which to discuss disability. There was a sense of normalisation of course (I’m not on my own!) but more importantly, a sense of equilibrium. I lived at one extreme or another; either complete denial (I seriously thought at one point that I could keep my disability a secret…*facepalm*) or a position of total defeat (“How can I be a musician AND a disabled person?”) – it seems silly now perhaps, but I had very little meaningful understanding of what I was dealing with. Meeting DM and other musicians w/ disabilities gave me, for the first time, a clear vision of my potential but also the challenges, and gave me room to think rationally for the first time. I could be honest with myself, and approach access issues with a more pragmatic, less emotional way. Being young and disabled can be incredibly isolating, even with friends around – the experience itself can be a lonely one. Opening this discussion with view to making it more manageable is something we can all contribute to, as organisations, as educators, as advocates and artists. We can all be powerful agents for change in this conversation, and I *hope* I can encourage others at these events that they can feel empowered to enact change.

Identifying The Access Barriers: It’s vital to have the understanding to identify access barriers that young musicians face, and I feel that many educators feel ill equipped in this regard. Understandably, people can be nervous about discussing disability with a young person, and anecdotal evidence suggests (in my view at least) that teachers aren’t often given the tools to feel confident in opening and entering into this dialogue. This seems especially true in mainstream schools; outside of a clear SEN/D context, it’s often new and unfamiliar ground. I could write a book about the great many awkward, tippy-toed conversations I had with teachers about my disability as a kid; I have a better understanding of that now I meet teachers who tell me they’re just not sure how to broach the subject.

I was enormously grateful to Drake Music and especially Gawain to begin the conversation about access barriers in a fuss-free, pragmatic way. The tone of the discussion was very much “Okay here’s the problem… let’s work out how to solve it” – it was an approach that was born out of the social model; suddenly there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with me, it’s the traditional processes that don’t fit me. It’s a subtle shift of focus that makes identifying access barriers easier for both parties. It can seem hard for practioners, but equally tough for people with disabilities. I certainly feared those conversations at first, at DM had the skills and experience to make that easier for me. Again, this something that teachers and orgs can be proactive about – another aspect of my journey that’s not just ‘lucky’!

Making It Accessible: At the end of this process is the action of putting *something* in place that enables the musician. This will often be a distinct instrument or modification to the traditional process. For me, that was of course to meet Imogen Heap and her team and get the gloves. Every need was identified, and the gloves literally fitted around those barriers.In talking about this, I’m again mindful of something Gawain said: Access Solutions Need Bespoke Solutions. I’m not doing this to champion the gloves; they worked for me, they may not for you. What I am championing is the thinking, the problem solving that led to this scenario. I went from about-to-throw-the-towel-in to a dizzying lifestyle of full time national and international live performances in less than two years; that took the drive and ingenuity of many more people than just me. Again, I want to inspire educators to think about how they can solve these problems.

I’m very aware of the context I’m developing here. Every tour date, every article, every little pinch-me success; it all amplifies the discussion, and adds weight and credibility to my appearances at education events like the TriHub conference. Music education was frustrating and difficult for me, but maybe this work will make it better for others. Time and time again, I’m reminded that people have the desire to enact change; I hope I can give them the confidence to see that they also have the power to enact that change.

For more information about the Love Music Trust please visit their website