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I am someone who believes that musicians don’t just encapsulate the select lucky few, but include all, no matter who you are. As a musician, I write, record, and perform my own music, utilising my vocals and technology to tell stories through sound.

As a music leader, I lead inclusive music-making sessions, primarily for people with disabilities and additional needs. It’s imperative to me I can operate from a place of understanding, both as a musician and as a disabled person.

When I was a teenager, I got involved in a community music project called ‘Wavelength’ run by Quench Arts. This was focused primarily on songwriting and I would say that it revealed to me that music was a potential career path.

At the time, I was going through a mental breakdown, and developing my expression through this musical artform meant I was able to gain foresight into the direction I wanted my future to go, something I didn’t possess at the time.

I gained valuable work, life and well-being skills by finding authentic and healthy ways of expressing myself

To me, that’s what community music is about. Even if I didn’t choose music as my career path, I gained valuable work, life and well-being skills by finding authentic and healthy ways of expressing myself.

When I was 17 turning 18, I had another mental breakdown, almost unable to finish my song writing diploma. However, once again, community music provided me with a ‘get out of mind-jail free’ card, as I was offered the opportunity through MAC Makes Music and Quench Arts to develop myself within community music, this time as a music leader.

You see, they saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself and without their encouragement and guidance, I would not be where I am today; able to work, able to grow and able to see myself as they saw me. It wasn’t about my disability or the fact that I couldn’t sight sing to save my life (though I’m trying to learn, I still can’t), it was because I was a person who had potential.

I now run multiple inclusive and participant-led music sessions

Some focus on songwriting, others focus on technology. Inclusivity is a buzzword which many people may use to tick a box, however I believe that it should be one of the foundations of what we do, not only as musicians but also as humans. The day we deny someone the opportunity to explore their musicality, and to do so in a way that best suits them, is the day we deny the potential for innovation.

Music is one of the most abstract artforms, yet it appears as one of the most natural; from children singing before stringing sentences together, to the fact that music is played at every street corner, in shops and on television, music seems inescapable.

Then why is it that music making feels like a gate kept secret, that only the chosen may enter? It seems ingrained into us from a young age that only those born with the mystical skills to make music in a palatable sense for a western audience are worthy to be called musicians. Those who look the part, sound the part and do the process by the book; those are the musicians.

I regard everyone as a musician, worthy of respect

I don’t believe the question is how music sessions can be inclusive, but how we can be inclusive in general. While the answer warrants a longer time frame and word count to fully encapsulate, there is one thing that will create a groundwork that inclusive practice can flourish from; a change of mindset.

I regard everyone as a musician, worthy of respect and worthy to be treated as a professional, meaning I can approach my practice with a wider lens of diversity and the human experience. A lens that values their metaphorical voice, not diminishes it. Their opinion and influence lay the basis of the direction the session goes; why force someone to learn Chuck Berry when they can’t stand the 12-bar blues?

Minimal expectations of who is coming, what music will be created and how it will happen is how I like to give agency and freedom to those within the session. Who are we to fit people and music into the neat box we ourselves place them in? It’s not my music at the end of the day; it’s their music.

Focus on creativity over rules

Place yourself in the student mindset; while they may learn immense amounts of musical and life skills from me, there has never been a session where I have not learnt something from them.

Whether it’s a rogue fact that someone has shared with me, or a new way of working that I had not considered before, I will always learn just as much from the participants as they do from me. If you are not inspired by the participants, I encourage you to place them at the heart of what you do, not the music. Focus on creativity over rules.

Some hit songs I have written with young people within my sessions include ‘Brian Loves Pizza’, ‘Colin the Cosmic Cow’, ‘Unicorns and Rainbows and Cupcakes and Stuff’, and ‘Hamsters Rule, Humans Drool’. Animals and food seem to be very important topics within some of my sessions now that I think about it. And while they may sound whimsical and childish, the creativity within these minds inspires me day by day to be a better musician and person.

We’re not just building musical skills, but life skills

It’s important to remember that music is a tool used to create a lifelong impact in everyone, whether they choose music as their career or not. We’re not just building musical skills, but life skills. Everyone is a person who has potential.

If you cannot see potential within someone, you aren’t looking hard enough. Once we alter our own perspectives and challenge other people’s perspectives on what music is, how it’s made and who makes it, I believe we can truly get a taste for what inclusivity really means and get a fuller landscape of the human experience.

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Elizabeth J. Birch

Elizabeth J. Birch is an undefined glitch. A musician, producer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, she crafts alternative electronic music that transcends boundaries, inspired by how sound can create and convey emotion. Over her career, she has released 2 concept EP’s, received radio support from BBC Introducing and Unmade Radio, performed at the Symphony Hall Birmingham and been accepted into the F-List and Drake Music emergent programmes. Beyond her solo career, Elizabeth is a community musician, utilising songwriting and technology within her inclusive music projects to inspire those with disabilities and additional needs. Believing music is for all, she strives for the music industry to be as diverse as the community, challenging perceptions. In 2023, she was awarded the ‘Inspirational Music Leader’ award from Youth Music sponsored by the Musician’s Union.

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