National Disability Employment Awareness Month

WDAV Spotlights Disability Employment Awareness Month

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the U.S., established more than 70 years ago to celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities. Throughout the month, WDAV highlighted classical musicians with disabilities who have left an indelible mark on the arts.

In addition to this on-air focus, we partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Neil Lerner’s seminar on music and disability studies to produce a blog series highlighting composers and performers with disabilities. We also turned to the community to discover what role music might play in serving individuals living with disabilities. We spoke with Meg Johnson, Music Therapy Clinical Coordinator for the Queens University of Charlotte, who provided insights into her use of music therapy.

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Music and Madness

By Nancy Pruett

Cultural stereotypes surrounding disabled figures run rampant through media and society, and opera is no exception. The ‘cure or kill’ paradigm is an unfortunate example of humanity’s inherent discomfort with difference.

The term ‘cure or kill’ was coined by Rosemarie Garland Thomson to describe the two most common paths presented to disabled characters in literature, art, music and media. Disabled characters are either cured of their disability, thereby allowing them to enter the normate (able bodied) group, or are killed, thereby curing society of disability and easing the tension in normates’ lives presented by disability.

Specifically, madness is a trope often used in opera to signify a break in a character’s story that is either corrected or leads to the character’s downfall.

In Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1925), the title character is driven mad and commits suicide as a result. Giovanni Paisiello’s Nina (1789) features a woman who loses her senses at the supposed death of her lover, but regains her faculties immediately following his safe return.

In Handel’s Orlando (1733), the title character is driven mad with jealousy when his love marries another and this madness is the cause of most of the drama in the opera. Only after his mind is magically restored does the opera end in happiness for all characters.

These characters are not presented as capable of living with their mental illnesses and must be cured and brought back into the world of normalcy, or their disease must be eradicated and they with it.

These stigmatized portrayals of disabled characters infiltrate not only the way we as individuals view the very real, three dimensional disabled persons we interact with, but the way that we as a collective society believe they should be handled.

The ‘cure or kill’ paradigm in opera displays the roots of many stereotypes that continue to be prevalent today. The rock musical Next to Normal (2008) takes a close look at the effects of Diana’s struggle with manic depression on her family. Most of the show is spent presenting the interruptions to the lives of Diana’s normate family while trying to find a cure for her, and though Diana is neither cured nor killed, she leaves in the end for the good of her family.

In the clip below, Diana attempts to explain her feelings to her distressed husband while hallucinating the intervention of her dead son.

This recent work illustrates the way music has evolved, but media interpretations of disabled lives have not. Even the title demonstrates intense discomfort at the presence of difference in the lives of the characters and a desire achieve a state of normalcy, and the final moments of the show place much higher value on repairing the lives of normates than its disabled protagonist.

Stereotypes such as this encourage a societal hierarchy in which persons with disabilities are relegated to lower rungs and must therefore work that much harder to be viewed as equal citizens of a normate world.

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Nancy Pruett is a senior at Davidson College

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the U.S., established more than 70 years ago to celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities. WDAV partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Neil Lerner’s seminar on music and disability studies to produce a blog series highlighting composers and performers with disabilities. This post is a part of that series. Be sure to check WDAV: Of Note for additional blog posts focusing on different artist.

 

 

OCD and Repetition in Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8

By Bayne Brannen

Disability Studies scholars consider how a cognitive disability may have affected a composer’s work just as they may study how a physical disability affects a performer. Music theorist and Disability Studies scholar Joseph Straus has written about how disability presents itself as abnormalities at the level of pitch relationships in music that resolve themselves to something more conventional. However, the music of Anton Bruckner provides another way to think about music and disability.

H.F. Redlich’s Bruckner and Mahler documents Bruckner’s compulsion to count relatively arbitrary objects and repeat certain phrases several times for no reason. While these behaviors may seem harmless, his disorder eventually led to a three-month stay in a sanitarium where he recovered enough to continue his work.

Some posit that Bruckner’s disorder had a distinct effect on his music. Julian Horton, in Bruckner’s Symphonies, describes the composer’s routine of counting the measures of his compositions and organizing them into different “numerical groups.” Additionally, Redlich ascribes the composer’s frenetic recurrence of short motives in his work to his disorder. Essentially, the regularity of Bruckner’s music constitutes its irregularity. A great example of this repetition lies in the scherzo of his Symphony No. 8:

Clearly this piece contains a highly repetitive motive. But repetition occurs in music beyond the symphonic repertoire of the nineteenth century. Just take a listen to this disco hit from the seventies:

So what can we make of this? Simply because the composers of “Get Up and Boogie” utilized repetition may not mean they have obsessive-compulsive disorder. While the repetition of both Symphony No. 8 and “Get Up and Boogie” were probably incorporated for entirely different reasons, we could have a similar response when listening to either—whether that be a response of interest or boredom. In the end, our reactions are what constitute the experience of the music rather than the known intentions or habits of the composer.

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Bayne Brannen is a senior at Davidson College

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the U.S., established more than 70 years ago to celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities. WDAV partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Neil Lerner’s seminar on music and disability studies to produce a blog series highlighting composers and performers with disabilities. This post is a part of that series. Be sure to check WDAV: Of Note for additional blog posts focusing on different artist.

Django Reinhardt: Accommodating Ingenuity

By Ellis Coan

In 1928 French guitarist Django Reinhardt suffered severe burns during a fire, resulting in the loss of function in two of his left fingers. Consequently, he devised new techniques and idiosyncrasies that allowed him to continue playing.

A confluence of factors, the foremost being his own commitment and talent, led to Reinhardt’s continuation as a musical performer. But Reinhardt’s preference for jazz over classical music also played a role in his success. As classical guitarists require extensive use of the ring finger, Reinhardt would have faced greater obstacles had he not been a jazz artist.

The existing classical repertoire did no favors for Reinhardt. According to jazz scholar Benjamin Givan, Reinhardt’s impairment prevented him “playing chords which require considerable wrist supination” and “precludes many fingerings which are merely run-of-the-mill for non-disabled guitarists.” Classical music and its strict adherence to prescribed fingerings, chord voicing, and other technical aspects would have been unfeasible.

Jazz, however, was far more accommodating of Reinhardt’s impairment both in terms of technique and repertoire.

Alex Lubet explains Reinhardt’s achievement in Music, Disability, and Society:

“The interpretive latitudes of jazz – to arrange, improvise, and compose one’s one parts – enabled a technical and stylistic transformation that gave Reinhardt access to the entire repertoire, played in his unique and idiosyncratic style.”

Limited in playing close intervals, Reinhardt would instead employ alternate chord voicings that could result in unique sonorities. Rapid runs up the guitar neck, often associated with Reinhardt, were likely resultant from his difficulty with shifting strings.

These idiosyncrasies, among others, borne from Reinhardt’s disability help form his distinctive style. Reinhardt’s success in jazz exposes the extent to which disability in music is constructed. Instead of framing his success as solely an individual feat we should hone in on the factors that necessitated Reinhardt’s invention and how they may influence or limit other disabled persons.

A Little Love, A Little Kiss by Django Reinhardt:

A Little Love, A Little Kiss (Original) by Eddie Lang:

Featured Above: Two versions of the same song, “A Little Love, A Little Kiss.” The first performed by Reinhardt, the second by Eddie Lang. Note the two different uses of chords — Reinhardt’s consists of two notes, spanning large intervals, while Lang uses many notes and close intervals.
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Ellis Coan is a senior at Davidson College.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the U.S., established more than 70 years ago to celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities. WDAV partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Neil Lerner’s seminar on music and disability studies to produce a blog series highlighting composers and performers with disabilities. This post is a part of that series. Be sure to check WDAV: Of Note for additional blog posts focusing on different artist.

Deafness: Rethinking Music

By Austin Bowley

Despite the common belief that experiencing music is a privilege only for people with fully functioning hearing faculties, we use more than just our ears in the musical experience. We dance; we feel the beat within us. In my voice lessons at Davidson, I am told repeatedly to let my body convey the meaning and stop worrying about the sound I produce!

Furthermore, we have examples of deaf and hard of hearing (DHOH) musicians throughout history and the present. Beethoven composed with a hearing impairment that worsened through his life, and Evelyn Glennie is a well-known and highly successful contemporary Deaf percussionist.

These examples demonstrate that the DHOH community does not have to be excluded from experiencing music or being musical. So how, then, do DHOH people experience music and become musicians? It turns out that in order to become a musician, whether someone is DHOH or not, practice is key.

Music educator Robert Fulford, in “The Formation and Development of Musical Identities with a Hearing Impairment,” shows that as opposed to learning by sound, DHOH pupils may learn note names through visual puzzles or pictures, pitches by feeling the speeds of vibrations, or musical technique through metaphors such as tone color.

Pulling evidence from his interviews with DHOH musicians, Fulford comments on the power of visual cues and gestures to learn, for instance, how long to hold a particular note on a violin or find the beat from a conductor.

While the DHOH community continues to find ways to participate in music, their inclusion demands that we revisit the definition of music. Does music require sound?

Apparently so, at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which includes “sound” as a central part of its definition of “music,” but a Deaf musician like Evelyn Glennie complicates the dictionary definition.

Perhaps a more inclusive definition should focus on physical vibrations, emotions, and the abstract form of music instead of the sound produced.

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Austin Bowley is a senior at Davidson College.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the U.S., established more than 70 years ago to celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities. WDAV partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Neil Lerner’s seminar on music and disability studies to produce a blog series highlighting composers and performers with disabilities. This post is a part of that series. Be sure to check WDAV: Of Note for additional blog posts focusing on different artist.

La Mer and Depression

By Hannah Thigpen

Claude Debussy wanted to be a sailor. He was only a few years from his compositional triumphs when he wrote, “I have been smitten not with sea-sickness, but with sea-seeing-sickness.” I see connections between the symptoms of depression as an expression of this disability in the complex composition that is Debussy’s La Mer.

The third sketch of La Mer is entitled Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea, and it is rife with upheaval. Dialogue is more ominous and aggressive in comparison to the first two sketches. From the relentless timpani to the sharply articulated bursts of rhythmic density, this sketch conveys fitful unrest.

Listen to the third sketch from a performance of La Mer by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra:

The “call of the deep” theme from Dialogue evokes in its cyclic, rumbling quality the depressive symptoms enumerated by The National Institute of Mental Health: persistent sad or empty mood, feelings of hopelessness, irritability, and feelings of worthlessness.

La Mer became one of the few Debussy compositions to deal so personally in despair, expressed in the undertow of the sea. The agitation in the strings especially speaks to irritability. Cycling themes reinforce feeling lost or hopeless. Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea contains immense, conflicting forces within itself. Depression, in parallel, dwells as conflict contained within people.

By applying the disability studies framework to La Mer, I seek not to deal in certainty or posthumously diagnose the man behind the work; furthermore, the medical model of depression is only one lens through which to view human disability.

The sea unleashed in La Mer reveals more than nature. Art, and Debussy’s La Mer in this case, complements and expands our medical understanding of depression through sound, sensation, and metaphor.

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Hannah Thigpen is a senior at Davidson College.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the U.S., established more than 70 years ago to celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities. WDAV partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Neil Lerner’s seminar on music and disability studies to produce a blog series highlighting composers and performers with disabilities. This post is a part of that series. Be sure to check WDAV: Of Note for additional blog posts focusing on different artist.

Doc Watson And The Blues

by Dylan Morris

Arthel “Doc” Watson (1923-2012) was a blind guitar player best known for his pioneering role in the flat-picking tradition. Watson lost his sight as a child due to infection and thus had to learn by ear. Despite this disability, he began learning banjo and harmonica at a young age according to UNC professor Phillip Gerard. His willingness to expand from the Appalachian ballad tradition he grew up in to the finger-picking Blues genre was remarkable.

Watson admired country blues guitarist “Mississippi” John Hurt, and musician Tom Paxton recalled from a gig where they were both booked at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village that “Doc had his tape recorder out and was recording song after song as Hurt dug deep into his repertoire.” John hurt was known for his rhythm-driven style that relied heavily on the bass-thumb pattern, often putting emphasis on the offbeat. Here is a video recording of his “Spike Driver Blues”:

The influences of Hurt’s version can be easily heard in Watson’s recording:

In numerous other online videos, Watson credits Hurt’s version with the tune. The version Watson plays here is much different than his usual, fast-paced and melodically driven style. Like Hurt, he puts emphasis on maintaining the alternating bass-thumb rhythm as opposed to the melody. Though we can clearly see Hurt’s finger-picking pattern in the first video, Watson could not and so he had to learn this tune by ear alone (Watson did not read Braille).

According to Gerard, Watson discussed his disability in a 1999 interview: “I think the handicap made me realize I have to depend on others…There was a time when I had a persecution complex because of the handicap… when I was much younger… But what brought me out of feeling sorry for myself was life itself… Life is the best teacher of all.”

Dylan Morris is a senior at Davidson College.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the U.S., established more than 70 years ago to celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities. WDAV partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Neil Lerner’s seminar on music and disability studies to produce a blog series highlighting composers and performers with disabilities. This post is a part of that series. Be sure to check WDAV: Of Note for additional blog posts focusing on different artist.

Condescending Heroism: Paul Wittgenstein and the Reception of a One-Handed Pianist

by Peter Whitehouse

Prior to the First World War, Paul Wittgenstein was becoming Austria’s next great concert pianist, especially given his wealthy father’s connections to Brahms, Schumann, Strauss, Mahler, and Schoenberg. But tragically, Wittgenstein was wounded while serving in WWI and lost his right arm. All of a sudden, his potential career lay in jeopardy. Despite this tragedy, his determination, stubbornness, and family wealth led him to continue pursuing a career as a concert pianist when he returned home in 1915.

As disability scholar Neil Lerner observed, the term “pianist” assumes that the player has two functioning hands. As a result of this societal expectation, the now one-handed pianist Wittgenstein adopted a unique piano method, breaking apart chords in rapid succession: first, striking notes in the bass (often referred to as the left hand), then using pedal to create a sense of playing the whole chord simultaneously. But this method was ultimately ineffective, as it altered notated rhythm.

Portion of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

In this recording of Wittgenstein playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, we can hear several inaccuracies, just his first few measures, with regards to pitch and tempo in the 3/4 section. These errors are made especially apparent when listening to this modern recording by the Liszt University Symphony Orchestra.

Despite this imprecise technique, he debuted a piano concerto for left hand by former instructor Joseph Labor (who himself was blind) to positive acclaim. To critics, Wittgenstein emerged as a hero in a battle against his disability, satisfying a heroic overcoming narrative. But as Blake Howe observes, the general public and critics actually admired the performance out of anxiety, as Wittgenstein’s playing was actually quite inaccurate. And by feeling the need to resolve this anxiety, the audience defaulted to a sense of relief; to them, Wittgenstein had heroically overcome his disability.

Greater than his desire to play with two-handed proficiency was Wittgenstein’s desired to play the star role. He was able to use his wealth to socially transcend his disability, and commission pieces from Europe’s best composers. However, these pieces were never quite to his liking. Wittgenstein often took orchestral melodies and put them in in the piano part, and demanded exclusive performance rights for commissioned pieces. He extensively edited Strauss’ Parergon and Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, and flat-out rejected Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 4 in Bb minor, claiming he “did not understand it.”

As a result of poor performance and lack of professionalism, Wittgenstein’s critics soon turned sour. As biographer Robert Pelton reports, friend Trevor Harvey was critical of Wittgenstein’s insensitivity toward the score and his liberties (see figure 1). Even Wittgenstein’s own sister, Margaret, indicated that his playing had become much worse after he insisted on doing what she thought was impossible.

However, the pieces Wittgenstein attempted were not impossible. Musicologist Blake Howe notes that numerous pianists have followed Wittgenstein’s approach with far greater success. Even two-handed pianists, relying on a technique referred to as “cripping up” (i.e., when non-disabled actors pretend to have one), have found success with performances that Wittgenstein couldn’t manage. Whether or not a cripface practice is ethically sound will be a discussion for another time, but such contrasting performances beg the question: Did Paul Wittgenstein heroically overcome his disability, or did a heroic narrative just require him to do so?

Peter Whitehouse is a senior at Davidson College.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the U.S., established more than 70 years ago to celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities. WDAV partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Neil Lerner’s seminar on music and disability studies to produce a blog series highlighting composers and performers with disabilities. This post is a part of that series. Be sure to check WDAV: Of Note for additional blog posts focusing on different artist.