Access and prejudice still need to be fought, but the British Paraorchestra has talent and fearlessness on its side, says Charles Hazlewood.

Photo of dancer and disabled musicians

Paul Blakemore

When you set out to do something brave it’s not unusual to meet resistance, which usually comes from within. It’s called fear. Since 2011 I’ve helped to build a new, internationally renowned orchestra of world-class musicians, who are among the best I’ve ever worked with.

While there was a look of nervous hesitation on the faces of a few musicians, it was our disabled performers who displayed a reserved and determined calm

The resistance that they come up against in being fearless, brilliant and bold doesn’t usually come from within, but from others. I’m talking about the British Paraorchestra, which strives to leave indelible memories with audiences by performing challenging works, playing all manner of instruments you’d never hear in traditional orchestras, adding spikes of technology and pushing themselves to the limits of their hard-practised skills.

Did I mention that they are disabled? Does it matter? Unfortunately it does, but that’s what we are here to try to change.

Fighting prejudices

When disabled musicians are just musicians, when the Paraorchestra can be just an orchestra and when every major concert hall in the world provides adequate stage access and backstage facilities for wheelchairs, we’ll know we’ve done what we set out to do.

Discrimination has many faces. People are well-meaning and have good intentions, but when we set out to develop the orchestra for the 2012 Paralympics’ closing ceremony, many words of encouragement were, unwittingly and without malice, laced with the tell-tale signals you hear when you often speak about disabilities.

Many explosions of “Fantastic!” came with language that says “Aw, how lovely for them”, as if our mission was only to give our musicians a reason to get out of the house. It’s really difficult to fight with prejudices that remain hidden behind politeness. There was an underlying lack of confidence, and there still is, that asks if they will be any good.

In June the Paraorchestra performed the seminal work, Terry Riley’s ‘In C’. It’s one of my personal favourites, a mid-sixties manifesto by one of the world’s most progressive musical minds and, coincidentally, a challenging and unpredictable piece that to do it full justice is best learned by heart.

What added to the sense of occasion was that we collaborated with Extraordinary Bodies, an integrated circus company that shares our ethos and are also neighbours in Bristol.

Local support

What helps is that our efforts are recognised and supported in Bristol, which is rapidly developing into a centre for providing professional opportunities for disabled artists.

Why Bristol? There’s something in the water here. It’s a city open to ideas with diverse communities. Perhaps a little more specifically, we’re supported to do so by a range of people, organisations and partners. Together, we create the climate for change through action.

The Paraorchestra had been drifting a little, a project that could be grabbed from the shelf when required. But this situation was halted last year through the support and encouragement of Arts Council funding. It’s not only about investment but about sharing and contributing to our vision, and has ensured our success as well as given us an added sense of validity to everything that we set out to achieve together.

In addition, we have a permanent base in At Bristol, whose vision of a more closely connected culture of arts and science chimes with our mission to push creative boundaries and seek out diverse collaborations.

That Bristol can be blessed with the Paraorchestra, Extraordinary Bodies and Open Up Music (providing classical performance experience for teenage disabled musicians), plus Watershed’s proactive work with the deaf community, and the Doing Things Differently and Fast Forward festivals, must be more than a coincidence.

Of course it is, and it comes down to action taking precedence over words. For example, in its redevelopment plans, Colston Hall has prioritised a future in which its fully accessible education and concert hall facilities will exceed anything previously built in the UK, raising the bar for national standards in accessibility. Bristol has a confidence like no other city in leading the way.

Professionalisation of disabled artists

The professionalisation of artists who happen to be disabled is a bigger issue than can be handed to separate departments of arts organisations. It has to be closer to the core. The broad assumption is that disabled artists can only advance their talents with the support of non-disabled artists. This is a complete folly and misses vital opportunities.

When life gives you a raw deal, you tend to not sweat the small stuff, which means our musicians can arrive free of the inhibitions and bad habits that performers in older, more established orchestras occasionally have. They are first out of the blocks when we ask for improvisation, while the non-disabled, in my experience, are prone to feeling furtively around for permission from each other to start, petrified of standing out.

Some of these musicians were part of my orchestra as I stood with my back to 20,000 people at midnight on Saturday night at Glastonbury, ready to perform Philip Glass’s ‘Heroes Symphony’ in tribute to David Bowie. While there was a look of nervous hesitation on the faces of a few musicians, it was our disabled performers who displayed a reserved and determined calm.

Orchestras, arts organisations, concert halls and everyone aside and inbetween should consider these dynamics, our work and Bristol’s rise to prominence as a progressive and fertile environment for opportunity.

Where discrimination exists, it can’t continue, and where fear exists, it can be challenged by belief.

Charles Hazlewood is Artistic and Music Director of the British Paraorchestra.

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Photo of Charles Hazlewood