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Interview with Hunter Stiles, co-researcher

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Hunter, a co-researcher on our new report, Reshape Music, shares his experiences of making music.

Hunter is a student at Falmouth University in Cornwall, where he is currently working towards qualifications to teach students labelled as having special educational needs. Originally from Glasgow in Scotland, he has spent most of his life campaigning for equality for Disabled people. As a drummer, Hunter has taught samba to members of a youth group and provided free drum kit lessons to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

After completing his undergraduate degree, Hunter is keen to carry out additional research and ultimately complete a PhD which focuses on the impact of music in healthcare.

Hi there. My name is Hunter Stiles. I am twenty-two years old. I am originally from Glasgow, but I live in Cornwall. I am an undergraduate at university studying music. I am a drummer in university, but I do do a lot of other projects that involve research and involve collaborations with other musicians and the kind of music I make varies.

I predominately play metal music with rock and pop thrown in there, but I also make a lot of scores for video games and TV and soundtrack sort of stuff.

When and how did you first get involved with making music?

Music making is important to me. It gives me an opportunity to be able to express myself in a way that is accessible to a lot of other people. Sometimes I can find it difficult to actually talk about how I'm feeling or let other people see how I'm feeling 'cause I am very guilty of sort of hiding how I feel and being able to make music is a way for me to approach my own feelings and get them down in a way that is more productive and makes me feel a lot better once I've done it.

Now, I chose to play the drums predominantly because I have always really loved rhythmic instruments and that's, you know, either just regular percussion or tuned percussion, so things like xylophone, marimba, steel drums, so on, but I geared more towards the drum kit after I had been playing in samba bands, so I played this massive drum called a surdo, which is a Brazilian drum. If you imagine, like, the kick drum of a drum kit, it's like that. It's huge.

It went on a sling and I eventually played that initially, I went on to play the repinique, which is a snare drum without the snares and then I bridged that gap and went onto playing the drum kit and I chose that because I felt, other than just really enjoying percussion, I just felt that it was the easiest way for me to play an instrument that I didn't have to seek out a specially adapted variant of that.

Influence on my instrument more so came from the kind of music I was playing at the time and the kind of music I was listening to. So I've always listened to a lot of rock and I've always listened to a lot of metal and I've always loved the drums in them and so that sort of pushed me more towards playing that particular instrument. It's just because I really enjoyed that genre of music and some of my favourite experiences since I've started making music was I taught a lot of disadvantaged youngsters back in my village where I was originally from and these were free classes where we taught individuals how to play samba music and play samba drums and we ended up doing a large scale performance at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow and being able to get a group of people together to collectively make something and it made them feel part of something bigger than them.

So that was definitely one of my favourite experiences that I've had since I started making music.

Why is this research important to you?

There is a lot of research out there that talks about disability and the medical side of disability or the clinical side, the social side of disability. There's a lot of research that exists about that. Predominately, that research is taken out by people who don't have lived experiences of disability, so they themself are not Disabled and sometimes as a Disabled person that reads that research, it can feel really alienating because you are watching someone write about your community and sometimes people get it really right and, you know, they're very considerate and they talk about a lot of issues that other people may not have thought of, but sometimes it can feel as though they aren't actually understanding the deeper rooted issues and they sort of just skim over them really quickly, so having research that's actually Disabled-led and it's actually looking at very particular things that do affect you on a day-to-day basis.

It promotes change. It shows the data and it says look, there are issues in this area and this area, and this is what people think of it, and we need to start looking at solutions and ways to move forward so that these barriers don't exist or they're at least elevated.

Maybe not necessarily right now for my generation, but for the future generations coming up and my kids. If they ever had to face these barriers, I would want to know and make sure that there has been research done previously that would hopefully remove those barriers so that music making is as accessible as it possibly can be.

Do you think your experiences of making music have been the same as other people?

My experiences of making music is definitely not the same as other people who do not have a disability. Because of the kind of music I play, it's very common for people to get together in bands and groups and make music collectively and a lot of rehearsal facilities where you can go and you can play music with other people are very inaccessible.

Especially in Glasgow where I'm from, a lot of them are built underneath listed buildings, so they aren't actually able to put in lifts or any ramps or anything like that and it can be pretty much impossible to actually get into these places and rehearse, where as that's not something that someone without a disability has to think about. It's not something that they have to worry about when they're looking at places and it really severely limits where I can go to make music and it seriously limits my ability to make music because, at that time when I was in Glasgow, I didn't actually own my own instrument. I didn't have a drum kit, because we weren't able to have it in the house. It would've just caused too much nuisance for the neighbours 'cause it's a very loud instrument.

So the only places I really could go were places that were accessible to me and this doesn't just extend to people with physical disabilities. When I say physical, I mean sort of wheelchair. If you're in a wheelchair or have any sort of mobility issue, it's going to be nearly impossible for you to access those places, but that also goes to the same for people who have a sight impairment. If someone's blind, a lot of these places, they are not clearly laid out, they are not lit very well, they don't have any sort of florescent strips along the staircase. So, you know, if you are someone who doesn't need to use a personal assistant, it actually boarders on being dangerous for you to access these areas because there are trip hazards. There are, you know, inaccessible areas, so that influences how I'm actually able to make music 'cause I can't get into these places.

And as well as that, in terms of my own disability, sometimes I am just not well enough to make music 'cause sometimes I'm just not well enough to get out of bed, so the last thing that I'm thinking about is 'oh, I'd love to play the drums', even though, I do and I always want to play the drums and I'm always wanting to rehearse, if I'm really not feeling great, it's kind of impossible for me to play my instrument.

So that's something that can be really frustrating because I find that I actually can't plan ahead. So I can't write out a weekly routine and say, you know, on Tuesday at four o'clock I'm going to rehearse for three hours, because I don't know how I'm going to be feeling on Tuesday at four o'clock.

So it makes very difficult for me to actually plan out a week of rehearsals and it makes difficult for me to actually make music in a group, because if I have a group of people, which I do a lot of the time at university, I'm am in groups of people making music, if we book a rehearsal slot for say Thursday at six, it might be Thursday at half past four that I start not feeling well. and then all of a sudden, now I can't go to the rehearsal.

Now my group are missing a drummer and I'm missing a rehearsal. So that really seriously impacts how I'm ability to make music and how confident I feel in making my own music with other people, because, at least with myself, I know I can reschedule with myself.

You know, I have a drum kit now. I have an electronic drum kit which is a lot quieter, but, if I'm making music with other people, that's time that's been taken away from those rehearsals for them to be able to make music and have a coherent piece that's going to be marked appropriately because we have just not been able to do the rehearsals because I've not been able to go. So that's how my disability affects my actual experience of making music.

What message do you have for other Disabled musicians?

For individuals who are actually looking at wanting to make music, maybe you are really enthusiastic about it but you just don't know where to start or where to go or who to go to.

My biggest piece of advice is just to get in there and start. It is really difficult to try something new. Maybe you've never actually played an instrument but you are really keen to start, because you love music and it's something you feel that you're going to enjoy and for a lot of people that fear of not being able to find somewhere that's accessible, not being able to find a tutor that's going work to your needs, sometimes that is actually enough to stop you from doing something that you may otherwise actually really enjoy and my biggest piece of advice is get in contact with people.

Find organisations who specialise in helping Disabled music makers, because they do exist. They are out there. Sometimes it takes a little bit of searching around, but they are out there and they can signpost you in the right direction. They can send you to other people.

The other thing as well, social media is a great tool to use to find other Disabled music makers and ask them and speak to them and ask, you know, how do they get about these barriers?

Are there places that are accessible? Are there venues that are accessible? It's really really important that you communicate with people, because if you aren't able to actually talk to people and ask them, then you're not going to get the answers and sometimes looking on a, for example, a venues website, it's not going to give you the answers that you need because I have been to a lot of venues who say they're accessible and once I get there, they're accessible when you actually get inside, but getting inside, I have had situations where I've had my friend literally carry me out of my chair upstairs to then put me back in my chair so I can get in.

It's not really accessible, but these are things that there has to be a more open communication. You know, there has to be an open dialogue so that you do feel comfortable in asking these questions. And if you don't get the answers that you want, ask why. For people who do what to be involved in music making but they aren't involved, I think there is this issue of feeling like you're missing out and if you don't know better, then you won't do better. That's a kind of slogan that I live by.

If you've never done music making, you won't actually know what you're missing out on because you haven't had that experience of working with other people and it can be, as I said before, terrifying to get involved in these things if you haven't been involved in them before, but, again, when you aren't able to take part in that, you're missing out on the socialisation with other people, making new friends and learning new things because we as people learn very well from other people who are going through similar situations so I think that if you block that off for yourself and don't go out there and really put yourself out there, you are going to find that you aren't going to have a very good experience and so it's super super important to prevent yourself from missing out on anything. Is just to really get in there, snoop around, find the information that you need.

If you can't find information, then ask why you can't find that information. Really make these people think. Why isn't this accessible? Why haven't we provided this? It's really important to ask those questions.

How could Disabled musicians be better supported?

So this comes down to two things. So from an educator point of view, you know, so the people who are teaching either formally or informally, one of the biggest beliefs I have is that it comes down to a lack of training. Now there are training resources out there. They do exist, okay, because obviously we have specialist education teachers who do go through this training, but one thing that is sorely lacked is the lack of Disabled-led training. So actually speaking to Disabled people.

Finding out what is missing and working with them to provide a training package that's going to work and it's not going to be all textbook based, all theoretical based. There has to be practical things going on. There has to be work that is done with Disabled people.

It's all well and good talking for Disabled people, but most of us, actually pretty much all of us, we do have a voice. We can tell you what we need. We can tell you what we want and a lot of us have solutions to these things, because for most people, they have been Disabled their entire lives so we have had to adapt. We have had to change.

We have had to find ways of communicating with people and as I've gotten older, I've realised that my voice is actually more important than ever, because I can go up to people and say maybe you should try this, maybe you should try that, this actually works for people. So I think that for educators, training resources have to be provided by Disabled people with Disabled people and I think that is something that's really really important.

But in terms of accessibility into venues, a lot of it comes down to, kind of, planning permission for listed buildings, because a lot of venues are in listed buildings and there can't be any adaptions made to them and that's going to take a very very country-wide adaption to change.

I understand the importance of listed buildings and they are very historical and the architecture, and all this sort of stuff, but a lot of Disabled people can't actually even enjoy it because we can't get into these places because adaptions aren't able to be made and I think that we have, kind of, gotten to a point in life where I think it's appropriate for change to come in and I think it's appropriate for these laws to be changed and rules to be changed that these places can be made more adaptable.

And one thing that I've found is really difficult, is that, as a performer, I can barely actually ever get on a stage. There is barely ever a ramp, unless the venue is a new building that has been built recently, within the last like forty odd years I ain't getting in it. I'm not going to be able to get onto that stage and it can be kind of humiliating when you find that you actually have to play with your group on the floor and that can be really frustrating 'cause it makes you feel lesser than because you're not on that stage where everyone else has been.

So I think that actually there does have to, sort of, be country wide change to change this legislation that means that listed buildings can't have adaptions done, because it is extremely frustrating and we are missing out.

We are missing out on that experience of being able to go and see live events and perform at live events.

Do you have any other hobbies or interests other than music?

Yeah, I have a bunch of different interests. I am very very interested in motor sports. I've always wanted to race and it's something that there is a lot of barriers to that as well. 'cause there are certain rules and regulations around single seated racing for Disabled people. It's only been recently that that's actually been overturned because of a racer who was injured in an accident and lost his legs in that accident that they overturned that.

But again, that kind of comes down to he was already kind of a prominent figure in racing and then because he became Disabled, they then overturned this ruling, which kind of leaves you wondering; what about all the Disabled people who wanted to do that in the first place but they haven't been able to because there has been rules?

So that does actually sort of, it intermixes with the access difficulties that we find in music. Again, there are rules and regulations for listed buildings and so on, so forth, health and safety, risk assessment and a lot of the time, these don't fall in our favour because it's seen to be too dangerous but other than racing, I play a lot of video games.

That's pretty much my only other hobby and video games are very accessible to Disabled people. They never used to be. They are now, because we have companies like Microsoft that are bringing out adaptive controllers but then there are also tie-ins with music because that equipment can be very expensive and it can be very complicated to actually wire up and hook up and work properly and that does have a lot of things in music, where adaptions are very expensive, specialist instruments are very expensive, certain instruments you can only use if you're in with an organisation so it's not actually accessible to the wider public of Disabled people.

So again, there are also financial barriers. A lot of access difficulties you find in music and live events, they do cross over into other sectors so it's actually not as uncommon as it seems. Access difficulties are very very common.

What is next for you in your musical career?

The next step for me is when I graduate. I'm working towards getting a first class honours and I'm hoping to get that. I'm putting in a lot of work this year. And after I've finished at my current university, I am then going to go on to study a masters degree. But ultimately, what I want to be doing is my PhD and I want to be focusing that on music and healthcare because I do believe that music has got the power to change lives and it can be a very therapeutic thing for individuals who, no only are Disabled, but are also living with health conditions, you know, mental health conditions, physical health conditions, so on, so forth.

And so even though performing is something I love and I love playing the drums and it's a great stress relief for me, I want my career to be in research and I want my career to be in providing research that is going to make a difference for people.

And so realistically, that is what I want to be doing. I want to be doing research. I want to be working with people. I want to be creating packages of training for people, but also my ideal career would be working with specialist education as a teacher, because as a Disabled person, I think that it's very important that Disabled people have got someone who is like them to look up to and inspire them

And that's something that I really want to do, because I want to make sure that nobody else goes through what I went through in my previous education, because it wasn't accessible, there wasn't adaptions made, I felt left out I felt that my education was less important than other peoples education because I needed a bit of additional help and I just want to make sure that nobody ever has to go through that the way that I went through that and so that is where I want to be.

And in terms of change for people, I think that society as a whole needs to take a step back And actually look and talk to people. Ask Disabled people; what is the difficulties facing us? What are the barriers? How can we help? And I really want people who are Disabled to look at this research and go to organisations, go to venues, go to educators and say look at this research, you know, we want things to change.

Lobby for that change. You know, you do have a voice and it's very important that you use it and to just not be afraid of what other people think, because honestly, the minute you start worrying about what other people think, you're going to quieten yourself down, but you do have to be prepared to stand up for your beliefs and the importance of change and how change can make everyone's life better. Thank you.