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The Powerful Connection Between Disability and Music

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A few days ago, I had the absolute privilege of attending the final stop of the National Art Centre’s Orchestra‘s Truth in Our Time tour. This concert was beyond exciting for what feels like a billion reasons: it was the final stop of their tour, the truth in our time theme was, well, timely, and this was the first time in two years that I’ve heard live music! And above all? I’ve been dreaming of going to one of these concerts since I first fell in love with Ottawa at age 14 on a choir trip to MusicFest Canada.

I think the relationship between music and disability is severely underrated. The disability community has its own culture and history, and so many diverse ways of communicating and understanding the world around us. Becoming disabled challenged how I saw myself fitting into the world, and challenged how I could express these perspectives and experiences. Even before I was disabled, music was essential to expressing myself, sharing feelings with others, and feeling connected with something larger than me. And once I became disabled? Music was lifesaving. While I was also involved with musical theatre and choral music for over eight years, concert band saved my life on multiple occasions – and I’d love to take you through them.

The first time concert band saved my life was in grade 6. Overwhelmed by my depression and generalized anxiety disorder, I was having difficulty with my attendance, my academic performance, and just generally everything. While I absolutely dreaded classes, I kept going to school specifically for concert band. There, I could challenge myself every day to try new things, improve my skills, and work harder at something I truly loved. And the best part was that everyone else there loved it too. The routines of 8 a.m. band practices soothed my anxiety, and our repertoire (even at the elementary school level) managed to bring out my emotions when they were deeply removed from the rest of my life.

The second time concert band saved my life was in grade 7. I had left my last school and concert band to pursue a French immersion extended program, which had such underwhelming results that the entire program was recently canceled province-wide. Keeping that energy in mind, this school’s environment was dramatically worse than the last – and the concert band didn’t even have performances. Dealing with a growing eating disorder and some really severe bullying, I didn’t even have concert band to find comfort in. After enduring an entire year, I made the decision to return to my last school, where I immediately began to get better mentally and physically.

A quick note on my elementary school’s music program: this place had something for everyone. The at-risk kids, the “special ed” kids (as they were called), the excessively privileged kids, and everyone in between all came together in the same small classroom crammed with band chairs and concert stands. Whether by choice or during music class, everyone passed through that class and saw the Kiwanis Awards, group photos of past bands, and trophies lining the room. Whether stuck on the bells or allowed free rein on instruments in the back room, everyone had an opportunity to discover what music could mean for them. Everyone had a chance to belong. And when you’re 13, that means everything.

The third time concert band saved my life was in grade 11. As I’ve touched on in a previous blog, concert band was the only thing stopping me from dropping out of high school completely. When my JIA kicked in and kicked my ass, in that order, I just couldn’t keep living my life how I was. If I didn’t have concert band in my life, I would have absolutely dropped out of “traditional” high school in a heartbeat for online and itinerant courses. But because of concert band, I didn’t. Because of concert band, I made real friends, stayed involved in student life, and graduated valedictorian of a graduating class numbering around 500. And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with non-traditional schooling, the traditional approach with hybrid accommodations really allowed me to thrive.

In grade 12, my life did not need saving – but concert band made it a whole lot better. With my fibromyalgia treated for the first time ever, I was at the top of my game. My attendance was phenomenal for the very first time in my life, I was awake and engaged in all of my classes, and my leadership in band helped me learn more about myself, re-learn how to connect with others, and feel emotions again after a PTSD diagnosis. Because of concert band, I was learning how to live my life again.

And then, during the peak of my concert band career, the pandemic hit.

And then two years happened.

And then I saw the National Art Centre’s Orchestra, in a city I fell in love with on a choir trip, and I remembered how much I love music and all of the ways it has saved my life.

And now, here we are. I don’t see myself going back to performing music for quite some time – between school, work, and advocacy, I can hardly find the time to attend concerts as it is. Plus, I don’t really want my paper-thin-walled apartment neighbors to hate me, and I can’t justify the cost of an entire flute or saxophone and practice room fees. And while I did contemplate the fate of my love for music over the pandemic, the NAC Orchestra’s concert showed me that I can still profusely love music – just as an audience member.

As a neurodivergent person, let me just say that concert slapped. I cannot put it into words, but it scratched a part of my brain that really needed scratching. As I’m writing this, I keep air punching – not helpful for writing, but hopefully, that conveys how good this concert was. I’m still learning a lot about my neurodivergence, especially how it physically manifests – but I’m learning that when I was “just feeling the music,” I was actually stimming, which has really helped me unpack some internal ableism around that. And it was strange, watching this incredible music with so many layers and mixtures and sounds and levels and (subtly) moving alone, while all the heads on the ground level below me stayed nearly frozen. I didn’t understand why no one else was at least slightly swaying to the music – let alone showing signs of absolute joy. How can you stay still? Look at that oboe! Look at that piccolo! Why are they so shiny? All the violins move together! That’s so cool! Do they rehearse moving together or do they just vibe? (I did not anticipate including a play-by-play of my mind, but hope you enjoyed that little peek into my neurodivergent head!)

And as a physically disabled person? I love being an audience member! While there are a billion ways theatres can become more accessible (starting with widening the spaces between rows and having spaces for more than one wheelchair to sit together), being able to sit down and participate in that feeling of community and appreciation for music? Incredible! I also loved being a musician – while no professional, I found performing classical music incredibly accessible. I showed up 15 minutes early to run some scales to warm up my arthritic hands, and I was good to go! While I can only speak from personal experience, a ton of people within the disability community are leading some incredible initiatives to incorporate our culture into music in all its forms.

I think music has something to offer everyone – disabled and non-disabled performers and audience members alike. Music provides an opportunity to feel included, to feel represented, and to feel like you’re a part of something much greater than yourself. Music is escapism, reflections on and of reality, criticisms of the status quo, and insights into lived experiences. Music provides a new way to perceive and understand the world, communicate our thoughts and feelings, and share our lived experiences. Music is culture, connection, communication, and community. Music can help us understand each other, understand ourselves, and understand things impossible to express in words.

To me, music and disability feel inherently interconnected. I can’t really understand the lack of discussion on this topic, the same way I can’t really understand why audience members sit so still during concerts while the musicians sway with the music. This aside, I think there are a lot of opportunities and a lot of possibilities for more arts programming around music and disability – for disabled people to express themselves, for non-disabled people to learn more about our experiences, and to promote our disabled culture that is so vibrant and complex and diverse.

Originally published: May 24, 2022
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