I had the honour of attending this year’s Breaking the Bubble Conference at RichMix on behalf of Drake Music.
There, I sat on a panel at the opening of the day answering pre-selected questions before co-delivering a Compose & Perform course lesson workshop with Jonathan Westrup. In the run-up to the day, Jonathan and I were in close contact to plan out our approach, this being the first time for us working together.
The overall motivation of the conference was to create progression pathways into mainstream music groups, including orchestras. This disarmed any pre-conceptions I had around the conference being about creating token one-off projects aimed at musicians who have disabilities within therapeutic contexts.
So, this is a fantastic starting point for creating opportunities for young musicians with disabilities. This will not only stimulate the creation of new music, but has the potential to drastically reduce stigmas surrounding disability.
At the start of the day, I was on stage with another musician answering pre-agreed questions asked by the conference MC. We had the maximum of fifteen minutes for the Q&A session so I prepared my answers beforehand.
Due to my speech differentiation, my assistant repeated everything. This naturally elongates the answering process meaning my answers were even shorter to fit within the fifteen-minute session. I would have liked more time for a two-way dialogue with the other musician, the MC, and audience members to exchange ideas and perspectives, rather than just to be there as an example.
One of the questions asked of us related to our musical dreams and what we want to achieve with our music respectively. I personally could not answer the question as it was pitched, purely because I try to avoid “dreaming.” For me, dreaming encourages me to set lofty goals which remain on my metaphorical wish list! I answered stating my aims.
Breaking the Bubble conference specifically focuses on Special Educational Needs and Disability (…or SEND) catering for all levels of ability.
I feel high expectations of achievement, however, should always be at the forefront of working within the system; whoever the individual in question is (whether goals are professional or personal).
Musicians, artists, and freelancers often work outside established systems and concepts, to create new ones in order to achieve unique goals. I say this not to sound radically inspirational, but because I have had plenty of people doubting my ability in the past.
Luckily, this doubt has actually spurred me on to prove them wrong – I decided to leave special school in favour of mainstream because of the very low expectations I had placed upon me. I have no doubt that things have improved. My point is that if you are taken seriously, then that will encourage one to develop self-esteem and build confidence.
All musicians and artists deserve to be represented and encouraged to be an authority on their own craft – whether it be professionally or as a hobby. I started to work in music because it is the best medium for me to communicate my ideas. One of my aims is to reach the point at which I feel literate enough to compose based upon pure feeling, rather than adhering to existing academic norms within my writing. This takes time and commitment.
Some of the comments made by the panel reverberated throughout the day the spirit of which aligned with the overall mood. The format of the Q&A reflected how the rest of the conference progressed and, I felt, was about teaching and leading artists instead of supporting and working WITH them on their journeys.
Straight after the opening session, I was due in the room across the foyer for the Compose & Perform workshop. Jonathan gave an outline to the course before handing over to me. He introduced the use of iPads and apps as a means of creating samples which were then used by the participants to capture sounds and create a piece which I was going to conduct.
The participants were split into three sections with the aim of improvising a piece with a beginning, middle and end. The beats which were about to be played could not be predicted, adding further excitement and suspense to the project. My role was to set a tempo and then coordinate all three sections. I’m pleased to say it went extraordinarily well.
The mere fact that this conference exists is fantastic as it is definitely a step in the right direction. There’s a desire to create and support pathways for artists to progress into mainstream orchestras.
I believe that education is vital to creating pathways for musicians who have disabilities to professionally play in the mainstream sphere. Without in-school, or college, music education as well as opportunities to participate in music-making via projects for young disabled people, such as UP Orchestra!, there would be no musicians.
The ultimate goal is to reach the point where players who have disabilities are a part of the mainstream music and orchestral scene. The day reinforced the significance of my upcoming placement with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra where I will be setting up a brand-new ensemble comprising of musicians with and without disabilities.
However, I feel that there’s more to be done including potential for a new conference. I initially thought about writing how the Breaking the Bubble Conference could change. However, I feel that the current format serves as a platform for sharing ideas about musical education, which is crucial at this stage. The only thing I would like to see is for the conference to have an emphasis on working with the musicians and being lead by them.
Developments in SEND is a good starting point. However, there are other areas which I feel need to be addressed in order to create and maintain an environment to ensure that these pathways are a success.
Ideas for Changes
I have attempted to create a concise list of the areas which I feel need to be a part of the equation:
From experience, there are still some mainstream educational providers who feel unable to cater for those with disabilities due to lack of experience. Therefore, a mechanism to engage and share outcomes from the conference with the wider educational sector would be helpful.
Journalism and Third-party reporting
There is still a tendency in journalism to prioritise the disability of an artist as opposed to prioritising the artists’ work. This comes from the fact that disability still appears to be a weird and misunderstood concept for many people in society often resulting in dehumanisation of the people being reported.
It is important to note that this tendency is an inherent product of culture and is not done in an actively malicious way. However, I believe, for a deep-level cultural shift to happen, a intelligently thought-out strategy needs to be developed to target the root causes as opposed to the products of fear and the unknown still surrounding disability. This would contribute to building on the progress we (as a society) have made in the past to creating a more equal culture in terms of disability.
The media are able to set the zeitgeist in society; influence ideas and to ultimately determine common thought. It is therefore essential to find ways of engaging journalists and finding ways of encouraging direct and qualitative interaction between musicians with disabilities and journalists.
This might include partnering with media organisations who run volunteering schemes as a part of Continuing Professional Development for their staff. In doing this, it would allow journalists to get to know the human sides of disabled musicians.
This will hopefully start stimulating journalists to prioritise the personalities and the creativity over the disability. This, I believe, is a significant project needing a well thought out and flexible strategy to be successful. They might be correct in the current state of society but anything is possible!
Change Publishers’ Behaviour
I have had a challenge to find ebook versions of music theory books that are designed to follow graded music syllabuses. Although this has given me the opportunity to learn the best way to scan recognised text into digital form before creating my own ebook versions of academic and theory books, it has increased my workloads.
Luckily, my assistants have been able to scan many pages using Optical Character Recognition apps on my behalf. As well as researching the best workflows to achieve this, I have also contacted publishers to see whether they could send digital versions of books of which I had previously purchased hard copies. But, to no avail!
Although there are one or two organisations out there who digitise books, these are few and far between and only process a limited range of publications. We have yet to reach a point at which it is normal practice for publishers to offer hard copies of books in a variety of formats.
The changes in all of the above areas are based on one principle which is to humanise people who have disabilities and to recognise potential which is, like musicality, innate in every human being.
The Drake Music team offered Breaking the Bubble the chance to respond to James’ blog, understanding that this is an opoprtunity for reflection, exchange of experiences and development for the conference, as well as Drake Music.
Breaking The Bubble’s Response
The Breaking the Bubble (BtB) team greatly values the opportunity to respond to James’ blog about the thought-provoking and challenging aspects of music education and development for people with special educational needs and disabilities within different elements in today’s society. We are delighted that the conference held in October 2016 is a focal point of the piece.
To address some of the points raised specifically relating to the conference, we’d first like to begin by clarifying that the purpose of the conference was to:
- provide a platform to discuss issues relating to musical progression for young people with SEN/D
- stimulate and generate practical ideas and conversation, around issues of musical progression for young people with SEN/D
- raise the collective profile of SEN/D music making and the Breaking the Bubble programme nationally and within our region.
Whilst the development of mainstream orchestras becoming more accessible is definitely something Breaking the Bubble are keen to support, creating “progression pathways into mainstream music groups, including orchestras” wasn’t specifically the aim of the conference.
The Q&A to which James refers was designed to be 15 minutes originally, however, we acknowledge that the delegates may have got more from the Q&A if it had been a deeper conversation with a longer allocated time. We will be taking this into consideration in our evaluation and planning for any future conferences.
The blog implies that generally the conference was focussed on teaching and leading and not supporting young artists and encouraging them to lead. We believe that educated and confident teachers and leaders can be a strong catalyst for opening the doors for young people in education and leadership.
It is true that the purpose of the conference and other BtB training programmes are focussed on supporting professionals and organisations to develop their practise through CPD. However, at the core of this is the recognition that teaching and programmes of work should always be designed to directly benefit and support the progression the target group, in this case young people with special educational needs and disabilities.
We would like to once again thank James and Drake Music for their support at the SEN/D Music Development Conference and we very much hope that we can continue to work together to support more young people with special needs and disabilities in achieving their creative potential.