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Disability History Month: Drake Music

Drake Music discusses using creativity and technology to overcome these barriers and create new opportunities for music this Disability History Month.

Amplify accessible music production course participants

Drake Music discusses using creativity and technology to overcome these barriers and create new opportunities for music this Disability History Month…

Drake Music is a leader in music, disability and technology. A national organisation, funded by the Arts Council and Youth Music, Drake Music works to remove disabling barriers to music in many different ways, from developing inclusive teaching practices and creating opportunities for professional disabled musicians, to researching and developing new accessible music technologies.

We believe everyone has the right to express themselves creatively through music. For this to happen we see that there is a need for:

  • a broader range of truly accessible instruments
  • wider cultural recognition and acceptance of non-traditional musical forms
  • increased opportunities for and visibility of disabled musicians across the music sector
  • accessible venues, recording studios, practice rooms
  • equality of music education for all children

Our vision is a world without barriers to music. A world where disabled and non-disabled musicians play together as equals. Disability History Month feels like a good opportunity to share the story of where we are at now, 20 years into our challenge to break down barriers to music-making.

More Music Tech

One of the barriers facing disabled people in terms of writing and playing music is the physical inaccessibility of many traditional instruments. Here at Drake Music we use creativity and technology to either overcome these barriers, or to create new types of accessible instruments.

Music is a powerful medium.  If, as a culture, we exclude one section of society from music, we are not hearing the full artistic output of our society and are limiting full expression.

The reality is that many disabled people are not able to make music because the instruments currently available are not accessible to them. If a person’s impairment is such that they cannot play any existing instrument, then they face a disabling barrier to music-making.

Drake Music uses accessible music technology and supports the invention of new musical instruments, to remove disabling barriers and change this unfair reality. This can range from the use of an iPad app like ThumbJam which allows a person with limited movement to play a guitar sound, through to building and developing complicated technology like Mi.Mu Gloves.

Our work is all underpinned by technology in order to offer access to writing, playing and performing music. However, we have observed a growing gap between the rapid development of new technology such as iPads and iPhones and the little to no investment in new accessible musical instruments. For example, in June 2016 there were over 2 million apps available for Apple, yet Drake Music only regularly use a handful for accessible music making.

There are only six widely available musical instruments specifically aimed at accessible music-making. In contrast there is a rich and diverse choice for most aspiring and professional musicians. Through our research and development programme DMLab we seek to stimulate debate and awareness around this gap and also to develop and build new accessible instruments which are both accessible and affordable.

We hold hackathons and innovation challenges to ask the creative music tech community to come together and create instruments with accessibility built in from the start. We bring the technologists together with disabled musicians to create a space for creative collaboration. This has led to the development of new pieces of kit like the Kellycaster, an accessible guitar developed by musician John Kelly and coder Charles Matthews. At our recent innovation challenge we saw projects like a digital violin and an electronic gamelan instrument.

The mi.mu Gloves Story

One example of our approach to breaking down barriers using tech is the work we have been doing with musician Kris Halpin on using and developing the mi.mu musical gloves to understand their potential for him and for other Disabled musicians.

Kris Halpin works with Imogen Heap's groundbreaking mi.mu gloves, demonstrating their potential as an accessible musical instrument. Kris is the first artist ever to use this incredible instrument in this context, and has appeared on BBC 1, BBC Radio 1, BBC 6 Music and Channel 4 with them, as well as in features in both national and regional press.

The gloves have enabled Kris to completely reinvent his songwriting practice. He has gone from trying to fit his work around conventional instruments which were becoming more difficult to play as his range of movement narrowed, to an almost limitless and entirely personalised approach to creating sounds through gestures.

Improvements in wearable technology and an incredible team of coders, makers and hackers have led to the development of this amazing new instrument which offers a level of complexity and musicianship not commonly seen in other accessible music technology.

Kris has since toured the UK performing with the gloves, including alongside their inventor, musician Imogen Heap. He has also attended conferences in the UK and Sweden and is now planning to work with a choreographer to further develop his new approach to music-making. He also delivers training sessions, keynote speeches and workshops as an Associate Musician for Drake Music.

Kris says: “Gawain and I chatted about the gloves; it was immediately obvious to us that the gloves were, quite by accident, potentially one of the most exciting developments in terms of accessible technology. An instrument that could make sense of the wearer’s movements, within that person’s own limitations, and translate that to something meaningfully musical… it’s difficult to articulate just how exciting that was to me. Pure musical sci-fi, with the potential to overcome access barriers in a beautiful, elegant way.

“The gloves didn’t just get me over the barriers, they levelled the playing field and allowed me to push my artistry to new limits. It wasn’t about getting me back to where I left off, it was about taking me to a new creative place, one so infinitely more rewarding that the concept of playing live the old way seemed quaint at best.”


Artistic opportunities

Alongside all the music and tech work we also create opportunities for disabled musicians to develop and share their creative output. A recent example of this is our Connect and Collaborate London programme, funded by City Bridge Trust.

There is a need for more opportunities to be created for disabled artists as often venues, festivals and performance spaces are physically and culturally inaccessible.

We bring disabled musicians together in cultural spaces across London to share practice, jam, try out new tech and meet potential collaborators.

This summer we offered 4 new music commissions for disabled musicians across London in partnership with high-profile arts organisations; WAC Arts, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Upswing and Southbank Centre.
We also produced the UK tour of disabled Brazilian rapper and activist Billy Saga, who led a creative session with the Connect and Collaborate musicians in London and performed at venues across the UK.

Education, education, education

As well as addressing the barriers faced by professional musicians we also need to address some of the root causes of unequal access to music, which include a lack of accessible music education from an early age and the need for skilled music educators and disabled music leaders.

Our education work includes delivering accessible music projects in schools across the UK and also working with music hubs, schools and teachers to develop a fully inclusive approach to music-making through our strategic Youth Music-funded programme, Think2020.

Currently we are campaigning for the music education sector to actively increase the numbers disabled people in the workforce, particularly as music leaders, but also as music hub staff, teachers and more.

We believe this will bring new perspectives to music education, high expectations of achievement and positive role models for young people. Research from Arts Council England shows that the numbers of disabled people working in the arts are very low compared to other sectors, so we aim to work with music organisations and music educators to address that.

Alongside this we are working with partners across the sector to create pathways for progression for young people who wish to develop their music-making further. For example, we offer a KS3 level music course, Compose and Perform, which is a fully accredited qualification for disabled students. The course is structured to be accessible in many different ways, from being flexible in how long the pupil takes to complete a module, to studying 'chance music' which allows a more flexible approach to writing and performing music.

We believe that strong disabled musical role models and accessible ways for young disabled people to develop their musicianship will build a more inclusive music sector now, and in the future.

As we look forward to 2017 we look forward to increasing visibility, instruments, opportunities, training and education for disabled musicians of all ages and abilities, and we look forward to being a part of making that change happen and celebrating those changes during Disability History Month next year.

Find out more via Drake Music.

Published: 15/12/2016

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