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Conductor James Rose On His Musical Journey

Conductor James Rose looks back on his musical journey so far, what next, and the cultural and logistical challenges to overcome this UK Disability History Month #UKDHM

Conductor James Rose looks back on his musical journey so far, what next, and the cultural and logistical challenges to overcome this UK Disability History Month…

My musical journey, so far!

Whether referring to mine or others, breaking expectations are central to the shaping of my journey into the music industry.  I have recently started a conductor traineeship at Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (the BSO) heading up the creation of the first disabled-led ensemble embedded in a professional orchestra in the world. As I sink my teeth into my role at the BSO, the more I feel I have landed on my feet, supported by a welcoming organisation of passionate people. However, this hasn’t always been the case!

In general society…

As with any social categorisation, the group concerned tends to be subjected to preconceptions about lifestyle, intelligence, and culture, amongst other facets of human existence!  In my case, ability and potential tend to be the top two things to attract doubt from others… This is an amazing position to be in for it means that anything I achieve leaves people in awe and wonderment.

The notion of conducting has been with me since a very young age…probably four or five. Through listening to Bruce Springsteen and Tracy Chapman amongst the 70s, 80s, and 90s hits on car journeys, my mind recreated the staging and conducting of the songs.

Educational standards

Whilst in “special schools”, I was not academically stretched. Physiotherapy and entertaining pupils superseded any meaningful learning. Expectations of academic achievement were nowhere to be seen. Thankfully, with schools like Victoria Education Centre leading the way, expectations in special schools on students are starting to increase.

1994 saw the birth of my first head pointer; an analogue piece of headwear from which a stick protrudes from the forehead downwards at a forty-five-degree angle, used to press keys on a computer keyboard. The desire to conduct with my head originated from bopping to music whilst wearing the pointer.  Being ignorant to “proper” beat patterns, I concentrated on the emotional narrative of pieces.

I attended three special schools before moving to mainstream secondary in 1997, aged twelve. Music lessons at my last special school featured watching an animation of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, presenting rhythms to duplicate on drum machines. This therapeutic ‘play time’ approach was catering for the mixed ability classes.

I attempted to push the boundaries(!) once by marking a rhythm with my wheelchair’s horn, owning it and temporarily unveiling my musical side. This aggravated the teacher, threatening to throw me out of the classroom; signalling the end of my initial attempt at being openly musical, resigned to the idea that my desire to be musical was weird!

The daydreams of conducting music continued bubbling away throughout the following years. Attempts to satisfy my creative urge were forged through studying and working in film and theatre. One of my films was aired on Community Channel but something was missing, weighing me down until 2012.

Traditional-led profession

Dancing in the London 2012 ceremonies stimulated my musical side so much so that any hesitance was superseded! With no musical experience nor qualification in the subject, I started making my dreams of conducting a reality.  The first step was to familiarise myself with music theory basics.

Obtaining my grade five theory was relatively easy for its pre-defined pathway.  The biggest challenge was digitising the exam board’s paperback theory book.  Reading independently from tablets is more relaxing, negating the need for a human page turner!

Finding experiential opportunities was proving to be impossible. Contradicting people’s expectations of an aspiring conductor, my appearance often led people to assume that I was naive, driven by delusions and many people did not take my musical conducting aspiration seriously.

Creating an education path…

Whilst filming at a music charity, I chatted randomly with someone during which I happened to mention my mission to conduct. This led to meeting John Lubbock who funded, through his charity, a three-hour workshop with a real string quartet. I put my theory of conducting with my head to the test. The first head baton design was based on my current “chin pointer” (a head pointer with plastic struts protruding from ear level mounting a pointer at chin-height). Instead of plastic, the elongated heavy Steele struts on this first incarnation interrupted smooth head movements due to the increased weight. The imposing struts also blocked the players from reading the emotional information from my face whilst playing.

This workshop was filmed and edited into a three-minute package used to secure future conducting opportunities of which a small trickle soon followed. Everything was filmed, generating the currency needed to secure the next opportunity.

My next task was to find formal conducting training by contacting a number of education establishments, including a conservatoire in London. My unique style of conducting, however, attracted concerns about how my learning needs would be met on existing courses. I needed to find another way.

In 2014, Royal Academy of Music had their annual open day for the MA Conducting programme led by Sian Edwards. Sian and I met and in January 2015, I started observing her weekly classes, developing my understanding of conducting theory and how I could apply the theory to my unique style.

Parallel to this, I approached Drake Music – one of the leading music charities in the UK – who redesigned a sleeker and simpler head baton.

Supported by Sian, Royal Academy of Music and Drake Music, I applied to the Arts Council’s Grants for the Arts to fund a Conducting Development Week I ran at the Royal Academy of Music, working with a string quartet under the guidance of John Lubbock and Sian Edwards. This was a complete success.  Concurrently, I responded to a call-out from Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (the BSO) for a disabled artist with whom to apply to the Change Makers funding programme. In October, we were awarded the funding and it snowballed from there!


In June 2017, I started my conducting traineeship with the BSO. This involves creating the first disabled-led ensemble embedded in a professional orchestra – a global first and a real privilege. Instead of chasing people, I’m now the one who’s being chased which is something I am getting used to! 


With projects like the National Open Youth Orchestra launching in September 2018, there is a real drive to achieve full inclusion within the orchestral arena. With this comes new instruments to the orchestral sector, such as the Clarion and Linstrument both of which will feature in the new ensemble I’m setting up within the next two years.

This involves meeting challenges, both cultural and logistical. Amongst them is Access-to-Work (AtW) – the Department of Work and Pensions’ scheme to fund access costs of disabled employees and freelancers. Aggressive tactics are used to deny support to disabled people, resulting in them losing work. The Independent Theatre Council are working with the theatre sector to campaign against these perpetual changes.

Access costs for the new ensemble have been included in the project budget.  Having lost three paid positions in the past due to Access-to-Work, I have concerns regarding how access costs will be met. I will be pushing this on to the agenda as forming one of the major components for creating an inclusive orchestral sector.

Working and training with the BSO and creating something to help others to achieve their musical dreams is an utter privelege. The first time when the ensemble comes together and performs will be a special moment to which I’m looking forward. This project is about reminding people that no matter how many ‘differences’ we have between each other, we are all human.  A fact that will guide the continuation of my musical journey to break even more expectations!

Find out more about James and his work via jamesrose.com.

Get involved in UK Disability History Month, which runs from 22 November – 21 December, via UKDHM.org.

If you’d like advice on your rights at work, or any other aspect of your career, get in touch with your MU Regional Office.

Published: 22/11/2017

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