Our recent Reshape Music report found that more than half of Disabled musicians who responded to our survey could not find a music teacher who met their learning style, suggesting a desperate need for training in inclusive practices for music teachers.
Oscar is a 17-year-old pianist and percussionist from West Berkshire. In a conversation with Georgina, a co-researcher on our Reshape Music report, Oscar spoke about the hurdles he has faced from a young age accessing music, and how he overcame them to become a member of the highly regarded National Open Youth Orchestra - the world’s first Disabled-led national youth orchestra for 11-25 year old Disabled and non-Disabled musicians.
Music makes me feel free and happy
Apart from NOYO, music is a huge part of Oscar’s life. He plays in a concert band run by his local Music Education Hub, Berkshire Maestros, and a pop group at school his mum Jayne runs as a volunteer. “It’s easy to make it fun, which is essentially what I do with the band, you know, I’m just making it fun. They enjoy it,” she says.
Playing in a group is one thing Oscar loves about music: “Last year I played at the Barbican with NOYO. The orchestra was huge and it made a big sound, I loved it.” When he’s not playing music, he loves to hike. Oscar says both music and hiking make him feel “free and happy”.
Aside from the pop group, there is no music education or specialist music teacher available at the special school Oscar attends. To take part in classroom music lessons, Oscar needs to travel to the local mainstream school with support from a teaching assistant.
However, when it came to completing his GCSE Music qualification, there wasn’t enough resource for a teaching assistant from Oscar’s school to accompany him. Thankfully, Jayne was able to step in. “We went in and did the lessons,” Jayne explains, “and any homework, we did at home, so it was entirely separate from his school.”
“I have a music degree, this is why I can help in the way I can,” she says. “Otherwise, it might not have happened. With the theory, it takes a while for him to take it in. A teaching assistant would need to know about music, and there was nobody there to do it.”
Unlike some Disabled musicians, Oscar has the support of many music leaders and teachers, as well as his mum. Oscar says his piano teacher “challenges and really encourages” him. Jayne adds that the teacher “sees the potential rather than the disability”, and challenges Oscar “as she would [challenge] anybody”. “She treats me like normal”, says Oscar.
When Oscar plays with NOYO, there are additional measures in place to support him. However, at other orchestral and concert band rehearsals, Jayne provides Oscar with additional support:
“Conductors, in the moment, doing the music-making, are not thinking necessarily about modifying things,” for musicians like Oscar who need more time to process instructions, explains Jayne, “so that’s why I need to be there”. Jayne supports Oscar with things like finding his place in the score of an orchestral piece or thinking about which sticks he needs to play various percussion instruments.
But not every musician has this kind of support from parents and teachers. Jayne suggests changes like using clear, simple language in rehearsal settings could be a good way to support more musicians like Oscar with their musical progress.
Despite the barriers Oscar has faced along the way, he’s working towards several musical goals such as Grade 8 piano and Grade 7 percussion. He has support from his private instrumental teachers and Berkshire Maestros.
He’s also working with his teachers to improve his improvising and sight-reading skills, and after he’s finished school his ambition is to go to music college.
Oscar’s best advice for young musicians like him is to “keep practising”. He says, “you will get better and really enjoy it”.
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“I have managed to do exactly what I wanted to do and I’m not a full able-bodied person firing on all cylinders. If that message could get out to anyone who needs it, that would be great."