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.
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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