Oliver Cross – Inclusive Practice in Action – Sound Connections Reflections for Think22


We are pleased to share reflections from Disabled musicians on the recent Sound Connections “Inclusive Practice in Action” event. The focus of this year’s conference was Diversifying the Music Education Workforce, a topic close to our work here on the Drake Music Think22 programme, so we decided to invite musicians from our network to attend and respond. 

This piece is by folk artist Oliver Cross. Our gratitude to Oliver for his words and thoughts.

Oliver stands on the Fens before a ploughed field. He is wearing round shades and looking into the camera as he plays his harmonicaI attended this online conference, described as a ‘virtual sit in’ for Drake Music. I find these conferences quite difficult and inaccessible, but Sound Connections had put a lot of time and thought into how to make it accessible. The pre-conference information was excellent , and the programme and inclusion mechanisms had been put together by a team of practitioners including Drake Music’s very own John Kelly. There was a very big emphasis on inclusion- including and protecting everybody, which was very reassuring: https://www.sound-connections.org.uk/news/an-event-driven-by-action-fuelled-by-kindness 

A lot of the discussion was based around ‘intersectionality’. The Oxford Dictionary defines intersectionality as “the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage”. There is a lot of common ground between people who are being discriminated against, we have similar experiences.

For me the most important talk was from Dr Muna Abdi. Here is a link to an explanation of her work on “How to be an ally” which I would encourage you to read. Although her experience may be different to mine, I really do recognise what she’s talking about. It’s familiar to those who are excluded, and gives some simple ideas as to how we can ‘be an ally’ and work against prejudice and discrimination.

Number 1 and 2 on Dr Abdi’s list are:

  • Own your privilege
  • Talk about the uncomfortable.

In terms of inclusion, disability and music, I am privileged. I’ve benefited from the training and experience in good inclusive music projects as a Drake Music trainee and now as an Associate Musician. I’ve also benefited enormously from having some disabled musicians as role models who I can go to for advice and support.

This meant that when a facilitator at the conference said ‘Get a piece of paper and write down some thoughts about this. Put your hand up when you’ve finished’ I was able to point out in the ‘chat’ facility that not everybody can write with a pen or pencil on paper easily ( that includes me!) or put their hand up. The facilitator accepted this, and immediately put it right. On the face of it, it’s not a big deal, but it is if you are disabled and are excluded from the activity by this use of language. I think it’s a good example of me using my privilege, with the knowledge that we’re on a journey and we don’t all start at the same point.

I was shocked when Dr Abdi said ‘There is no such thing as a safe space’ particularly in online discussions. As an autistic man, I find online discussions difficult, and I’m probably quite wary anyway, but I’ve always hoped that in a moderated event, I would be safe. Sadly, this was not to be the case at this conference and in a breakout room, with other music educators I was shocked and triggered by another participant’s comments. I had probably forgotten how close to the surface my feelings about being excluded from music and public performances as a disabled person at school were, but this comment made it all came flooding back. I don’t think that the individual even considered that their comments could hurt anyone or cause offence, but they did. There was no moderator in the group, the comments went unchallenged and were then repeated when we came together as a group.

How do I feel about this?

At the time I could not challenge it. I was upset and angry and couldn’t speak. When the session finished, I was very angry and frustrated. Fortunately, John Kelly was online at the same conference and I was able to have a chat with him and I felt much better about it. It’s easy to forget your own privilege and the realisation that others in inclusive music haven’t had our own experiences and are at different stages of the journey.

2 weeks after the conference I am still bruised by the encounter, partly by what I saw as my own inability to deal with the ableist comments at the time. However, this morning I received an e mail from Sound Connections. Included was a ‘grab bag’ of resources from the conference an invite to a follow up event and this section:

“We also recognise the emotional and psychological impact that the event may have had on individuals, particularly those who have experienced discrimination in their personal and professional lives. We are considering how to curate spaces to support individuals in our ongoing workforce development programme. In the meantime, if you would like to have a one to one conversation with one of the Sound Connections team to share and decompress, please do get in contact with us.”

Dr Abdi says “Be brave. These things are not always comfortable. But commit to pushing past the point of comfort to take effective and impactful action to change things…even if that action is messy or risks the loss of your own privileged/powerful status”.

So thank you, Sound Connections, for giving me the opportunity to be brave.


Take a moment to enjoy Oliver’s Drake Music Ascendant Commission, recorded live at the Barbican.


Read the other reflections from the Sound Connections Inclusive Practice in Action conference: