Working to Make Music More Accessible to All

New technologies and changing attitudes mean more disabled musicians are playing instruments. 

July 8, 2024

I was born with a congenital defect and have lived my entire life without the use of my right hand. When I was nine years old, our music teacher informed us that we would be playing the recorder for next year’s music class—an instrument I was inherently unable to play. Disability was not only a social label that was implicitly attached to my character; it was also a ceiling placed over my physical and cognitive development by my environment—in this case, a combination of the class budget, the attitude of this particular teacher, and the tool she wanted us all to use to play music. 

Adrian Anantawan

My parents and I considered the possibilities for alternatives. I chose the violin, not necessarily because of its practicality but because it made the most beautiful sound I had heard. With the help of biomedical engineers in Toronto, I was able to hold my bow with an adaptive device known as a “spatula.” Through this piece of plaster and aluminum, I was able to connect with and understand the world in a deeper, richer way. 

As a classical musician, I believe that we are not necessarily stewards of the past but cultural practitioners and changemakers who push the boundaries of technique and expression. We also work to address key social problems of our time so that careers like mine are not seen as exceptional but as possible for all. The world is changing in terms of the possibilities available to musicians with disabilities, and new technologies allow them to play music even though they may not be able to physically pick up an instrument. For instance, I spearheaded a project in Canada that enabled a musician to play chamber music with his peers by using only his head movements to play a virtual musical instrument. 

This work led me to found the Music Inclusion Program that helps young children with disabilities play in an orchestral setting after school. At Berklee, I lead the Music Inclusion Ensemble, where students with disabilities, and their peers who support disability causes, play music together— we just held its debut concert in April. There are also the ongoing, incredible efforts of my colleagues like Rhoda Bernard  (Berklee Institute for Accessible Arts Education) and Jae Edelstein (Accessibility Resources for Students), who inspire me every day, creating more inclusive classroom spaces for all. 

As Berklee continues to support accessibility causes, we are envisioning a better future for arts and culture and making progress on answering the essential questions of what it means to live equitably, generously, and beautifully in this world.  

Adrian Anantawan is an assistant professor in the String Department.

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