Academic journal article Music Theory Online

"Re-Narrating" Disability through Musical Performance

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

"Re-Narrating" Disability through Musical Performance

Article excerpt

[1] The interdisciplinary conversations between Western art music and Disability Studies have inspired me to reflect on my studies in music, both as a person with a physical impairment and as a graduate student participating in a well-established and privileged artistic community of practice. My dual identity as both a musician and a musician with a visible impairment provides me with a specific vantage point from which to participate in these dialogues. Previously, my identity as a musician with a physical impairment has often been polluted by self-doubt. In coping with the "disabling" effects of these psychological barriers, I alternately tried to "hide" my impairment as far as possible, or struggled to "prove" myself to my able-bodied peers. The emerging field of Disability and Music has offered me the chance to re-construct a positive identity for myself, to transcend the simplistic and dichotomous cultural meanings traditionally prescribed for physically-impaired performers in mainstream society: "invisibility as an active member in the public sphere, and hyper-visibility and instant categorization" (Sandahl and Auslander 2005, 4).

[2] To this end, I share my own experiences as a music student with a disability, and discuss how studying music at university has enabled me to access, as it were, feelings of "able-bodiedness" and to (momentarily) disrupt the perceptions certain publics may have of my physical difference. The paper is divided into four main sections: first, I outline some of the main difficulties related to the participation of musicians with disabilities in Western art music performance. I locate my own approach to these challenges in relation to Joseph N. Straus' discussion of how to revise "experientialist" discourse in order to accommodate "bodily difference" (Straus 2006, 124). I then discuss certain of the realities of living with a physical impairment as they relate to my activities as an aspiring pianist. The third part of the paper draws upon various theoretical concepts relevant to my personal experiences of disability in music: these include the "affirmational model" of disability, as well as the concept of "passing." Having established these concepts as a theoretical framework, the fourth part of my paper addresses the ways in which the visible aspects of my condition may or may not intrude upon audience perception in the context of a live performance.(2) I conclude by suggesting that musical performance can participate in the project of constructing new narratives about disability, stories which negate triumphalism and victimhood, and which reinforce positive identity, mutual accommodation, and collaboration. The realm of public music performance provides fertile ground for the advancement of such a project: as a form of cultural production, the performance of Western art music is simultaneously "the ground of both contestation and accommodation," and a forum for the construction of "narratives, metaphors, and images that exercise a powerful pedagogical force over how people think of themselves and their relationship to others" (Giroux 2004, 63). Although my discussion unfolds largely as a personal narrative-and I rely primarily on my own experiences rather than on the academic literature to elaborate my central premises-I hope that the issues I address will be of interest to a wide audience, transcending the various boundaries demarcated by socially- and culturally-marked physical difference.

Potential Obstacles in Accommodating Physically Impaired Musicians in Western Art Music

[3] Although the most obvious barriers to the inclusion of people with physical impairments into the mainstream of Western art music are structural, for example performing venues, teaching and recording studios, and music schools which are inaccessible to people with visual, aural, and mobility impairments, there are other challenges that require a combination of individual and societal accommodations in order to prevent them from becoming disabling barriers. …

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