Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra Resound : music and disability

Rachel Rowntree 24/05/2018
Just next to Bournemouth’s train station, in the Citygate Centre, a musical and cultural revolution is taking place. In one of the conference rooms, six musicians and their conductor are hard at work. This is the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s newest ensemble: BSO Resound. Report.

The atmosphere is quietly concentrated; the blend in the sound breathtaking for a group that has only been working together a few months. As with any professional ensemble they set about tackling the challenges posed by each work.  Articulation in an extract of Mozart, sustain and decay in Rachmaninov, and assuring tricky entries in a piece by Gerswhin.

However, this is no usual ensemble. All the members of BSO Resound have a disability. Lisa Tregale Head of BSO Participate has long wanted to address the situation that people with disabilities are "woefully underrepresented in the classical music industry". The project comes under the Rising Talent strand of BSO Participate, the department which Lisa describes as "covering everything from early years to the end of life and everything in-between!".

The orchestra applied to the Arts Council’s Change Makers Fund and put out a call for artists to come and work with them. This £2.6 million fund was set up to address the lack of diversity in arts leadership. "It’s all about finding your Change Maker" Lisa told me "and for us that was James". They worked out what aspiring conductor James Rose needed - an ensemble to conduct. It seemed logical to make this a disabled-led group. Lisa highlights that the project isn’t just about BSO Resound and James, but about "instigating cultural change".

Why the need for Cultural Change?

An Arts Council Survey in 2016 reported that a mere "4% of staff in National Portfolio Organisations and Major Partner Museums self-defined as disabled". Figures for those employed in classical music are thought to be even lower. Charles Hazelwood, creator and conductor of the phenomenal Paraorchestra, the world’s only large scale ensemble for disabled people has very clear ideas about why this is the case. Even at 8:30am on the phone, his passion and dedication to this cause is palpable. He conveys a strong sense of frustration that not enough is being done: "The orchestra has got stuck. It hasn’t refreshed it’s makeup in over one hundred years. I can’t think of another area of life which hasn’t continued to develop, embracing the technologies as they appear". He continues, "There is technology out there to meet every disability", however "established symphony orchestras don’t have a place for them". He clearly believes a change in attitude is also needed; "most people, still, if they search their hearts find it hard to equate disability and excellence".

The Change Maker

James Rose already has many of the attributes essential to becoming a successful conductor, passion for music, an unstoppable determination and a desire to learn, not to mention a wicked sense of humour! Music has always been important to him: "I always wanted to play an instrument but because I can’t blow or hold anything the opportunity never materialized". The notion of conducting started at an early age, "When I was seven I got my first head pointer, a device put on your head to operate a computer keyboard. I was listening to music and started bobbing my head". James has cerebral palsy. He uses a wheelchair, and has trouble with speech and movement, but none of this has lessened his desire to perform. However, it has not been an easy path. He lost a theatre traineeship in London after trying to apply to the government’s Access to Work Fund. Describing the application process he told me" whatever you write on the form, they ( the government) will always find a counter argument for why you shouldn’t need their support. I was arguing every single point on my form and that caused a delay in my ability to accept the offer, the company couldn’t wait". He finds the situation "....worrying and confusing. In the public sphere they keep saying not enough people are applying to Access To Work but when they do, they get argued down. It is demoralising". BSO Resound has changed his life, citing the commitment of conductors Sian Edwards and Frank Zielhorst to "working with me to work out exactly how you train a conductor who does it differently"(Frank assists Sian Edwards in her work with James).  Having not had a traditional musical education BSO Resound enables him to have conducting lessons, and Frank helps him with music theory, score reading and analysis.

With the support of Drake Music a head baton was developed: "A simple adaption to my glasses, a clamp, which can hold a conductors baton". In rehearsals James also uses a technique he calls "kissing out the beat" using his lips to make a kissing sound to beat time. It is constant work in progress, balancing what works for him and the needs of the players. "A lot of it is in the eye contact, and engaging the best way to communicate with people. Two people in the ensemble are autistic, and find it more difficult to read my facial expression, so at the moment I’m working out how to overcome that".  In addition he must work hard on his use of breath as this is essential to Kate Risdon, the ensemble’s blind flautist, so she can hear upbeats clearly.

Working with James gets straight to the heart of the conductor’s role. We are conditioned to seeing a conductor, standing in front of his players, baton in hand, but does it have to be like this? Roger Preston, cellist in the ensemble illustrates; "An orchestra doesn’t really need someone to stand there and beat time. As long as they express to us what they really want out of the music they can do it with their nose, or just their words.  As long as we understand it". Frank Zielhorst  tells me "James has strong opinions and musicality. It’s about how I can open the shell around him, where he can break out and show his personality and be the inspiring leader of this ensemble that he is".

Removing the Barriers

BSO Resound are using the social model of disability; the premise that it is not the person who is disabled, but society and the environment around them which is disabling. By removing barriers the players face, they are no longer disabled.

With this in mind they took a more holistic approach to the auditions. They attracted applications from the UK, continental Europe and Russia. Help with the application form was available to those who needed it and players were asked to perform two contrasting pieces. Time was made for discussion with each prospective player. Lisa Tregale makes clear though, that of fundamental importance, was the quality of playing "This ensemble sits alongside any other BSO group so the quality had to be there".

Rehearsals take place in accessible venues to accommodate wheelchair users. This highlights a major problem in the UK, that few concert halls can even accommodate wheelchairs onstage. The rehearsal schedule takes into account the players individual requirements, whether this be extra set up and pack up time, or more breaks to alleviate physical discomfort. Adaptations have also been made to the scores. James Rose, the conductor reads his scores from an Ipad. For Kate Risdon some of the music is transcribed into Braille and for Charlotte White, LinnStrument player, her parts are in a larger font.

Music has had a huge impact on Charlotte’s life. She became disabled aged twelve, losing nearly all movement and ability to talk except for limited movement in her thumbs and head. Aged 16 she was offered a weekly music class; "For the first time I got a lot of control back over my life, I could express my emotions which I couldn’t verbalize. People saw I had the ability to learn. People treat you differently, they look beyond the disability and hear the music. That was an exciting change". Her speech and some movement has returned but she uses a wheelchair. By including a non-traditional instrument in the ensemble, yet another barrier has been broken down. Charlotte recounts "When I was younger I always wanted to do music. I couldn’t do any grades because they don’t grade the instruments I played, so I couldn’t go down that route".  Music inevitably got "put aside".

The LinnStrument, designed by Roger Linn is an expressive MIDI controller for musical performance. It was released onto the market in 2014 and is perfect for Charlotte. However finding a teacher was not easy, as "a lot of traditional teachers get panicked by it" she says. Instead she taught herself and won a place with BSO Resound.  "BSO have supported me with a teacher and they’ve arranged parts to suit my ability, but enough to push me" she tells me. "Having someone supporting me makes a huge difference. I’m still learning and at times it can be overwhelming. But it’s so exciting when you make something really stick, it’s such a buzz and you feel so connected". The rehearsals also accommodate Lincoln, Charlotte’s beautiful dog, provided by Canine Partners, who helps Charlotte with many day to day tasks. To the amusement of the whole group, Lincoln spent his rehearsal hard at work chewing the cellist’s rehearsal pencil to tiny shreds!

BSO Resound, What next?

In creating BSO Resound, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, has achieved a world first. The first permanent orchestra to include a disabled-led ensemble as an integrated part of their work. They will be performing at the BBC Relaxed Prom this august, a Prom with tickets available for anyone, including welcoming those with disabilities to attend.

But what next?

Those working in the classical music sector must start addressing the lack of disabled people working in the profession, and not simply in terms of the  "one-way street" Charles Hazelwood describes where "disabled people are doing all they can because they want to join the able bodied world". The benefits to the classical music profession of integrating more disabled musicians into ensembles would be huge, the learning exchange indisputable. From grass roots up, much can be done. Proper access to instruments for disabled children along with high quality teaching on traditional instruments and the use of assistive technology is vital. Orchestras too have a responsibility to reassess many of their practices, the audition process, the music they commission and basic accessibility of venues.

There is not a simple one-fix. There are as many solutions as there are disabilities, but projects like BSO Resound  and the Paraorchestra are leading the way.

" It can only make the world a better place, lets face it!" Lisa Tregale convincingly surmised.



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