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The recent Members’ Conference in Leeds had an Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity focus; during it I shared my experiences of being a disabled musician – horn and Wagner tuba.

I have a number of impairments arising from mitochondrial disease plus traumatic brain damage. These include fluctuating mobility problems ranging from wheelchair to no mobility aids at all, a degree of cognitive impairment, heart disease and deafness. Of all of these it is the most visible – mobility – that gets attention and help from people. I am not really bothered by it as I can manage it myself although I do miss my long distance running.

Working as a musician with invisible disabilities

My invisible disabilities of deafness and cognitive impairment are the ones that cause me the most problems, especially in rehearsals. Not only do I not hear, or mishear, the conductor my brain can fill in the blanks in weird ways – sometimes hilarious such as “6 bars after haddock please.”

By the way, I am using ‘Cognitive Impairment’ in place of ‘Learning Difficulties’. As a 60 year old man I don’t feel that the latter is appropriate for me. I’m not at school or college.

Practical ways to help

I posted about my crippling rehearsal anxiety on Facebook and received a number of supportive replies. One in particular stood out; a good friend who’s a conductor asked “As a conductor, are there some practical things I could do to help people in your situation?”

There definitely are things that can help enormously and I’m very grateful to my friend for asking. As it’s something that is actually very significant and rarely addressed I put it on Facebook as a shareable post and I hope that the advice that I gave my friend is useful.

  • The biggest possible help is to NOT talk to your score when ‘going from’. If you can, please make eye contact with the deaf person so that (as I do) they have the opportunity to lip read. Bear in mind that B D E C & G all sound exactly the same if the consonant is swallowed up.
  • Secondly, please allow time for me to find ‘the place’, particularly if I have to ask another player what you said (I’m not “talking at the back” if that happens)
  • Thirdly, and this has happened to me, please don’t shout at me for going from the wrong letter. It’s humiliating and (in my case) was the start of my crippling anxieties about rehearsals.
  • I have been told, to my face and via others, “I don’t want a deaf horn player in my orchestra”. This is potentially reportable hate speech. Don’t do it.
  • Lastly, a lot of conductors say “Use your ears. Listen to the cellos,” (or similar). I can’t actually hear the cellos any more.

Bizarrely, I’m absolutely fine with being ‘parachuted in’ to a performance in an emergency. No spoken directions from the front to mishear and I can just get on with the job.

Being a deaf musician is not easy.

Thanks to

Nigel Braithwaite

Based in the West Midlands Nigel is an experienced, high standard amateur, orchestral horn player and teacher.

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