ASTA 2023 - Inclusion and the Story of Violinist Adrian Anantawan

March 21, 2023, 3:45 PM · What does "inclusion" look like in music education, and what does it accomplish?

Watching violinist Adrian Anantawan performing the first movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto - with the left hand that he was born with and a specialized device for the right hand he was born without, the answers to these questions seemed pretty clear. Beautiful things happen, when we make the extra effort to adapt our music-making tools and methods of teaching for people with disabilities.

His performance - with the impressive young musicians of the Howard W. Blake High School Symphonic Orchestra conducted by Jason Jerald - took place at the opening ceremony of the American String Teachers Association conference last Thursday in Orlando, Florida.

Watching him play the cadenza of the Mendelssohn concerto, with all that infamous spiccato bariolage, made me feel like anything is possible, for anyone.

Absolutely inspiring.

But it took an incredible amount of his own tenacity, support from parents, support from teachers, and support from the medical community to help him reach the point where he is now: a virtuoso violinist and performing artist who has earned degrees from the Curtis Institute, Yale University and Harvard Graduate School of Education. This is a violinist who went from being refused by teachers, to studying with Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, and Anne-Sophie Mutter and performing as a soloist all over Canada and the U.S. He now advocates for people with disabilities and is the founder of the Music Inclusion Program at the Henderson Inclusion School, a K-12 public school in Boston.

"I wanted to play the violin," Anantawan said after his performance, at a lecture he gave called Music Inclusion for All: Evolution and Adaptation. "It was not the most practical choice, but it was the most beautiful choice," he said. "I had to knock on the door of many string teachers - most said, 'I'm not sure how we would figure out the bow.'"

Anantawan was born without a right hand - his umbilical cord had wrapped around his right forearm and thwarted that hand's development. How did his family handle this? His grandmother, he said, could have embraced the Chinese superstition in which "disability can be seen as a curse on the family," Anantawan said. Fear, in other words.

Fortunately, she not only accepted him, but she also presented him a gift: a little baby bracelet that jingled whenever he shook his right arm. "He just needs more exercise for his right arm," she said.

"It was a way of seeing me as a complete person who just needed certain adaptations," Anantawan said. "So I was first a percussionist!"

Finding a musical instrument when he reached school age proved a little more difficult, though. First came the recorder, but "I did not have enough fingers to play all the notes," he said. Teachers suggested the trumpet, but he just didn't take to it. They suggested voice, but that also didn't seem like his instrument. Then they started telling him he could be a composer, or maybe just a cheerleader for the other kids who were playing.

"I was lost, trying to figure out what to do," he said.

That's when he saw a segment on the children's television show Sesame Street: Itzhak Perlman talking about things that are easy, and things that are hard.

"It went to show me how disability is so contextual," Anantawan said. Perlman was struggling with those steps - with space. Anantawan was struggling with attitudes. At that point, he decided he would play the violin.

After much looking, he did indeed find a teacher, Peggy Hills. She still wasn't immediately sure what to do about his right hand, but she did get him playing the violin. Her solution? He played all of Suzuki Book 1 with left-hand pizzicato!

"To be honest, I thought it was a wonderful pedagogy - I was finally playing!" he said.

He and his teachers continued to seek out solutions, and soon he had an "adaptation" made for him at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital - a device that straps onto his right arm, to hold his bow.

His teacher had told him: "The most important appendages are your ears, not your hands." Once he had a way of holding the bow, "my body sort of figured it out on its own. You start from the sound, and a student who is passionate will figure it out."

He said that physically, he can only play 30 percent with a "straight bow." Yet he can make music 100 percent of the time. It's important that teachers encourage a flourishing imagination - for technique, as well as for sound.

Anantawan showed us a number of the creative ways that educators are using science, technology and their own creativity to give people with various disabilities more options for creating music with the abilities that they do have.

For example, at Holland Bloorview they use something called Virtual Music Instrument (VMI) to turn movement into music. The technology uses motion detection with a webcam, so that kids see a screen of themselves alongside computer images that each make a unique sound when they reach for them.

"You are able to create shapes that promote a certain kind of movement," Anantawan said. In turn, that helps with physical therapy because "kids will extend and reach further in their efforts to create the sound."

While we sometimes bemoan that our modern technology is "dehumanizing," this is an example of technology that is the opposite - "through VR or motion detection, we can use technology to humanize," Anantawan said. "These are all acts of creativity and imagination."

He told the story of a violinist friend who had been paralyzed from the neck down in an accident. He was able to use this technology so that the movements of his head could create music again - and he even returned to the stage, which was extremely important.

"Even if he is playing just a couple of notes, he is making a contribution. And that transforms everyone around him, too," Anantawan said.

At his Music Inclusion Program in the Boston public schools, students with disabilities learn alongside students who do not have disabilities. "You can't just put people in a room and expect inclusion, but it's a starting place," Anantawan said.

In one instance, they held a "hackathon," in which students had to brainstorm to help Jack, a student with cerebral palsy who wanted to play the xylophone. Students pitched options to Jack for a modified xylophone, and in the end Jack approved a digital model, with a curved keyboard, where a speaker would make the sounds. The whole process not only had students working together to solve a problem for their classmate, but it also helped Jack think about his own needs.

"It's not just the pedagogy, it's the attitudes, it's the space," Anantawan said. Creating this kind of enabling environment "is not only a charitable thing to do, but it will push our art form."

To conclude the lecture, Anantawan played for us the beginning of the "Butterfly Lovers Concerto," in tribute to his grandmother:

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March 21, 2023 at 11:14 PM · Adrian demonstrates in a really clear way a key idea for all students, which is that if you always start from sound and relaxation, you will eventually figure out everything you need.

March 22, 2023 at 01:21 AM · Thank you for this inspiring article, Laurie! The limitations most of us face don't come close to what Mr. Anantawan has endured.

March 22, 2023 at 06:39 AM · Long comment ahead:

As a visually impaired violinist/violist/pianist, it is always heartwarming to see how those with disabilities adapt to make music. Depending on the disability and the instrument, learning a musical instrument is seen as either very accessible, very inaccessible, or something in between, and this is a topic that I definitely think needs to be talked about more. Of course having a visual disability is very different from having a physical disability, as is the case with Anantawan, but the need to accommodate is the same.

I will start off by saying that while I do feel unique as a blind musician, I find that music is one of the places where I have felt the most included and equalized with my sighted peers. Visually impaired children are often steered towards learning music because of its auditory nature, but the main issue is "how will they read sheet music?" If the person has enough vision, then enlarging the sheet music is a solution. For someone with little to no vision, the options are learning by ear or learning braille music, both of which I consider to be highly valuable for a blind musician. Thankfully, the Suzuki approach is really popular for violin and works well for blind learners as it emphasizes learning by ear (although I actually started my musical education with Suzuki piano lessons from a friend who has a blind son who happened to be a piano teacher). However, when it comes time to learn to read music, blind students often have to seek braille music instruction from those completely unrelated to their music teacher. In my unique case, I ended up teaching myself from books, but for others, it might be through another blind musician, a teacher of the visually impaired that helps them at school, or something else. Because braille music is difficult to obtain, and because blind musicians cannot read and play at the same time necessitating the need to memorize each and every piece immediately, it is really useful to be able to learn by ear. This means sight reading is out the window, and we memorize absolutely everything, including orchestra and chamber parts, or else, we improvise (for non classical stuff).

From a purely technique standpoint, the two main areas specific to violin/viola that can cause extra difficulty for blind learners is 1. keeping the bow straight and 2. making sure the scroll doesn't get too low. I actually forget what it was like learning the violin as a blind 7-year-old girl, but I sorta do remember being prompted to straighten my bow a lot. A combination of lots of prompting, learning to listen for a crooked bow, and my self-devised method of occasionally feeling the relationship between the bow resting on the string and the bridge with my other hand helped me to maintain a straight bow. The other issue I had was that my scroll would point down a lot. I was reminded a lot to hold my scroll up, but it took me a while to learn how low is too low and what high enough actually is. Again, those issues aren't the easiest to notice when you do have eyesight without the aid of a mirror, but are probably more difficult to self diagnose without being able to see. And oh, one last thing. A blind student can't look at their fingers when they play to determine intonation, which I think is a blessing in disguise, as this really heightens the need to listen for intonation problems. Placing tapes can help, as it is possible to feel the tapes on the fingerboard, but depending on the material and so on, not everyone may feel it. In my case I was a lot more pitch sensitive than typical, so this wasn't an issue for me.

I should also mention that in an orchestra/chamber context, coordinating bowings can be a problem, and as far as I know, the only way to be totally sure I'm doing the exact same bowings as my section mates is to have someone deliberately go over bowings with me one on one. Also, changing strings is one area where a blind violinist may need help. I have yet to change my own strings, but I've heard at least one blind violinist/violist do it on their own.

Overall, I'd say aside from those things, a blind violin student faces the same things as their sighted counterparts.

March 22, 2023 at 09:09 AM · Laurie and Ella, heart-felt thanks for your wise and interesting stories.

March 22, 2023 at 04:12 PM · Ella, thank you so much for sharing your experiences and describing the adaptations that you have needed in order to play. The more ideas we can share, the better everyone can understand and help each other. Is there an online source for obtaining braille music?

March 22, 2023 at 04:43 PM · Good question. There are braille libraries that have braille music to lend out, such as the National Library Service in the US, or other similar sources in other countries, but options may be limited. I'm in Canada, and I believe the Canadian national library for the blind may have some braille scores, but the selection is limited. There are programs that can convert printed music to braille, usually by way of a music XML file, both paid and online. I usually look for scores on the sharing site, export to music XML using MuseScore, and use an online tool to turn it into braille music, but not everything is available on so the only other solution is to have someone enter a piece of music in notation software and convert the resulting file into braille. Some choose to hire a transcriber who manually turns print music into braille, but this is a time-consuming and potentially expensive process. Other options include learning by ear using MIDI files, having someone record the part so you can learn by ear, or just learning from recordings on YouTube, all of which I've done at one point or another.

March 22, 2023 at 06:16 PM · Ella, thank you for this really useful information!

March 23, 2023 at 10:20 PM · Interesting. Sometimes, with a student with a too stiff, locked bow hold, I will say something like "don't let your (right) hand get in the way of your bowing".

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