Cripping Musicianship: Reflections on Compulsory Non-Disability in Classical Music and the Orchestra

Melissa Martin

We were rehearsing Shostakovich Symphony No. 10, focussing on an extended quiet and contemplative section of the work. It was an intensive rehearsal, with the conductor making the orchestra go back and begin again each time somebody made an error. Nothing less than perfection was to be accepted. As a percussionist, I was not due to play for some time, until a more upbeat and triumphant section of the work. I waited and took the time to adjust my triangle, which was clipped to the music stand in front of me.

A muscle spasm ensued and the triangle fell to the floor, sounding a spectacular series of clattering ‘tings’ as it bounced to its resting place. This abrupt interruption to the serenity of the orchestra did not go unnoticed. The entire orchestra stopped and turned to look at me, the conductor quipping that my intervention was ‘perhaps a bit premature’. Another percussionist stood up to fetch the triangle, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to bend to pick it up, their chair loudly scraping against the floor. In this moment, as in many others, I was cast as a faulty cog in a refined orchestral machine, destroying a stringently controlled silence that required each musician to have complete discipline over their body.

The sarcastic comment from the conductor had a sting to it. There is something deeply unsettling about being called out by such a powerful figure of authority. Whether my fellow musicians understood the event as mere clumsiness, a lack of necessary caution, or a direct result of my disability, the disapproval in their glares was blatantly obvious. To them, I was second-rate, lacking in the skill necessary for classical musicianship through my lack of bodily discipline. This is because musical skill is often taken as technical control over one’s instrument as an extension of the body; a mastery of moving the body in close connection with one’s instrument in avoidance of any forces beyond the music itself.

This particular experience was not the first time I encountered this conception of musical skill. To the contrary, this is something that has pervaded my experiences of musicianship from its outset. As a child, I recall being taught this and having the idea continually reiterated throughout my musical education. My skill was judged on exacting standards surrounding the ways in which I breathed, held my body, gripped my sticks, or passed my fingers over keys. It was reliant on my stamina, flexibility, agility, and above all, discipline over my body.

Such discipline grew increasingly difficult as my body was altered by the onset of chronic health problems. The demands of playing my instruments became greater, resulting in painful joints and aching, fatigued muscles. I couldn’t practice for such extended periods and could no longer play with previously-‘normal’ precision, my fingers slipping over keys and my sticks wobbling over bars alongside tremors and muscle spasms. By the standards of classical musicianship, my skill was much diminished and my potential depleted, a loss that I mourned with much frustration. I came to feel that classical music was a world within which my body doesn’t belong; a world that I don’t belong in.

In making sense of this, I turned to sociology. In particular, I found resonance – pun intended – with crip theory. In Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (2006), the book from which crip theory as a theoretical stance emerged, Robert McRuer describes his concept of ‘compulsory able-bodiedness’. This idea draws on queer theory and more specifically, Adrienne Rich’s notion of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’. While compulsory heterosexuality describes an assumption that heterosexuality is the default ‘natural state’ within a heteronormative society, McRuer builds on this to explain how able-bodiedness is similarly assumed as a state of normalcy.

This assumption is woven in the fabric of our social world. It is evident in the physical inaccessibility of the buildings in which we live, the equipment that we use, and even the clothes that we wear. It exists beyond the physical, in the assumption of a student’s ability to meet a set deadline, a colleague’s ability to work a full-time five-day week, or an employee’s ability to wait until a set break time to go to the toilet. Disability is typically an afterthought; something that requires adaptation to the existing modes of operation rather than something to be incorporated into these.

Critique of what is considered ‘normal’ is of course not new to disability studies and has faced much criticism. This typically involves casting the body as a machine made up of multiple functioning parts. As the argument goes, if one of the parts does not work effectively, the machine is faulty. Able bodies, then, are the natural state and any deviation from this is undesirable. Surely any disabled person would rather be without their ‘affliction’?

Where McRuer’s conception of compulsory able-bodiedness moves beyond this is in challenging the notion that someone is either able-bodied or not. To use the analogy of the critics themselves, while one part of a machine may be broken, it does not necessarily render the machine useless or completely unable to serve its function. Disability is not a straightforward binary, but a spectrum of performed identities of variation to which an individual may conform to the standards of compulsory able-bodiedness. Complete able-bodiedness is an ideal that is ultimately unattainable in that bodies and performances of able-bodiedness can fundamentally never be entirely perfect. Further, able-bodiedness can only ever be a temporary state, especially as bodies age and bodily performances change alongside this.

McRuer falls short, however, in his exclusive focus on bodies. Compulsory able-mindedness can be shown to be equally pervasive. Consider, for example, the hostility of public places to those with sensory processing issues, the lack of content warnings in mainstream media, and our reliance on written text or speech for communication. On this basis, I prefer to use the term ‘compulsory non-disability’, encapsulating intellectual disability, mental health problems and neurodiversity alongside more clearly ‘bodily’ disabilities.

While compulsory non-disability is evident across a massive range of settings, it is especially evident within Western classical music, as illustrated by my experience. Assumptions of non-disability are apparent within the design of instruments, the criteria by which we judge musical skill, intensive rehearsal regimes, emphasis on listening, and reliance on written music. Beyond this, there is something more inherent about Western classical musicianship that is hostile to disabled people. This can be most simply explained in that it is typically understood as rooted in the recreation of works written out by composers in the ways in which those composers had intended, as opposed to being predominantly improvised or created within the process of performance. While some liberty may be taken in terms of interpretation, there is not a great deal of flexibility in this, with interpretation always coming second to playing the notes written on the sheet music.

This is amplified – pun intended – in the orchestral setting. Flexibility is further reduced in the rehearsal process though the necessity of having set rehearsal times. Moreover, as bodies may be likened to a machine with multiple functioning parts, this analogy may similarly be applied to the orchestra. There is an emphasis on the collective, both sectionally and in the orchestra as a whole. Each musician must move at the will of the conductor, as if a singular body. This unity is reliant on conformity, leaving little space for the deviance of disabled bodies or minds.

There are some specific orchestras for disabled people, not least the British Paraorchestra or the Resound Orchestra. While this is a step towards making classical music more accessible, there is evidently much more to be done, particularly since the distinction between ‘disabled’ and ‘non-disabled’ orchestras ultimately reinforces the notion of a disability binary. Disabled musicianship is cast as ‘other’, not as something to be incorporated into the mainstream. There needs to be a careful balance between showcasing the talents of disabled musicians and segregating them from ‘ordinary’, non-disabled musicians.

As an alternative, I propose a more radical rethinking of classical and orchestral musicianship; a ‘cripping’ of musicianship if you will. This entails a more direct challenge to the hostility of mainstream classical music and orchestras to disability, appreciating the diversity of musical minds and bodies and reconceiving our conception of musical skill. This is not a simple task and requires a great deal of unlearning and confrontation of our own assumptions.

An ideal starting point is musical education. Rather than teaching that Beethoven was a masterful composer despite his deafness, we might teach that Beethoven was a masterful composer who happened to be deaf. Rather than teaching a ‘correct’ way to play an instrument, we might encourage learners to explore the beauty in the diversity of sounds that they can create with their instrument. The responsibility to crip musicianship cannot fall to music educators alone, however. Musicians and audiences alike must open their minds to new ideas of what good classical music might sound like, moving beyond the ‘authenticity’ of what a composer might have intended. In the orchestral setting, a substantial proportion of this responsibility falls to the conductor. Rather than imposing a rigid idea of what they want an orchestra to do, they might allow a greater flexibility, seeing what an orchestra offers them before working with this to shape orchestral performance more collaboratively.

It is only when we have accomplished this that every person will be able to contribute to classical and orchestral music in a meaningful way, to the benefit not only of those who identify as disabled, but to all musicians and listeners.

Melissa Martin is an MA Social Research student at the University of Warwick. Her research interests include the sociologies of disability, chronic illness, and genetics. She will be beginning a PhD at Cardiff University in October examining social aspects of the diagnosis of Hypermobility Spectrum Disorders. Twitter: @socio_melissa

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