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Audio for all: the power of inclusive sound

Oct 22, 2019
On October 2nd, Manchester’s iconic Bridgewater Hall was filled with the spellbinding sounds of Charles Hazelwood’s ‘Minimalism Changed my Life: Tones Drones and Arpeggios’. Transporting the audience through the ground-breaking Minimalism movement were a sequence of entrancing visuals, and an ensemble of musicians all clad in white – over 40-percent of whom identify as disabled.
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Through the universal language of music, The British Paraorchestra is proving physical limitation is not a barrier to creative excellence, and advancements in technology are helping other disabled musicians around the world unlock their potential too. From immersive, virtual reality music studios, to wearable tech that mixes textiles with motion-tracking electronics – the life-affirming act of making music is becoming more and more accessible.
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Why is this so important? In the words of Stevie Wonder (who famously changed the world’s perceptions of what a blind person could achieve by going on to become one of the biggest recording stars on the planet): ‘Music is a world within itself’. Visiting that world - whether by playing or simply enjoying a piece - can be a form of freedom, especially when a motor impairment can make you feel as if you’re ‘locked’ in your body.

This was certainly the case for professional trumpet-player, Clarence Adoo, who following a car crash which left him paralysed from the neck down in 1995, said: ‘I would rather play music than walk again.’ Since mastering a breath-controlled electronic instrument called Headspace, Clarence has made his return to the stage, where he improvised and performed a piece composed by visually impaired guitarist, Adrian Lee, alongside a group of disabled and non-disabled musicians.

We’re still far from fully understanding why the brain responds to sound the way it does. It was once thought that dyslexia completely eliminated the ability to read and write music, but it didn’t stop diagnosed dyslexics, Lou Reed and Mick Fleetwood. Florence Welch of the hugely popular ‘Florence + the Machine’ puts her musical passion down to her dyslexia and dyspraxia. Diagnosed young, Welch supports causes for children with the same learning and motor skills issues she has. Learning a musical instrument may be harder for children with dyspraxia, but that’s exactly why it’s so important. Learning and practising not only develops their motor, co-ordination and memory skills – it gives them a space to make mistakes and do things at their own pace, something that’s overlooked in the vast majority of school curriculums.
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As well as aiding recovery and development, sound is a vital tool in improving access to art and entertainment. From visual impairment and learning disorders, to cerebral palsy and the loss of use in one or both arms; there are many reasons someone may not be able to read print or hold a traditional book. Since Amazon’s $300 million purchase of Audible in 2008, over 470,000 audio titles have been uploaded to the Audible app for the world to download. For as long as man has been able to capture sound, stories and spoken word have been recorded. Audiobooks have and always will play a huge role in making literature accessible.

Similarly, on the night the British Paraorchestra took to the stage, a multitude of provisions were put in place to ensure everybody got as much enjoyment from the performance as possible. Alongside an on-stage British Sign Language interpreter were headsets delivering audio description focused on the video content, information in large print and braille, and a Touch Tour ‘designed to help visually impaired patrons gain an understanding of the orchestra set up prior to the concert’.

Audio can help everyone to enjoy art and culture to its fullest, and we’re excited to see how the technology advances to bring the joy of sound to as many people as possible.