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Music and Disability

Anyone interested in classical music is well aware of its demands. Most know how unforgiving a field it is for those judged to have come up short.

Imagine, then, its challenges to musicians with disabilities, suggests Alex Lubet, a classical musician, composer, and theorist, and author of Music, Disability, and Society, just out from Temple University Press.

There, the University of Minnesota professor of music, who also has appointments in Jewish studies and American studies, offers a framework for the study of music-related disability and its broader social and theoretical implications.

Lubet’s own experiences of impairment prompted his study. In 2000, he writes, “I had neurosurgery on my neck to alleviate extreme upper-body pain and restore function to my right arm and hand.” Largely successful, the surgery nonetheless was followed by “complex, frustrating, and anxiety-provoking” issues once he returned to work.

Nerve damage in his right arm and hand had rendered them “unfit for professional classical music performance,” he says. Fortunately, he is primarily a composer, and when he does play, as he often does on guitar and other fretted stringed instruments, he largely performs his own compositions whose technical demands he can control. But, returning to his academic post, he discovered he suddenly had come to have several identities within a single workplace. Falling in-between cracks in state and federal laws relating to employers’ responsibilities to people with disabilities, he became “permanently partially disabled” but not entitled to workplace accommodations. While denying any obligation to do so, various university and state officials provided adaptive office equipment, but no-one consulted Lubet about what he needed, and he rarely if ever could use what was provided.

A hand surgeon later operated on both his hands, and he ended up with limitations, and capabilities, that he began to fit into a long history of musician disability. Like the astounding Roma guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-53), Lubet can now do things with his highly developed left hand that daunt fellow musicians, yet he is unable to master some technical “basics.”

However Lubet painfully discovered that classical music—his own field, and the idiom that pervades academic musical training—harshly judged physical conditions like his. That judgment “was never explicitly rendered, but such a declaration was also unnecessary” because musicians all knew well the expectations of the culture of classical music, he argues.

The author noticed that, oddly, the performing-musician colleagues who judged him often had crippling or painful conditions, themselves, limitations that, “though of minor consequence in other fields, were devastating in classical music.” He began to develop a theory of music and disability—not only about the ways people with disabilities are denied opportunities to participate in music, but about what their experiences suggest about how cultures create and sustain notions of disability.

The book builds his theory in steps, beginning with an account of several one-handed classical pianists, particularly ones who suffered hand injuries that radically altered their playing abilities. Lubet then describes several physically disabled jazz musicians, particularly Reinhardt, who overcame severe finger injuries by developing idiosyncratic but highly advanced playing techniques.

Reinhardt, like some other great jazz musicians with disabilities, both accommodated himself to the demands of the art form, and accommodated the art form to himself, writes Lubet. Such artists showed, he says, that jazz has at times provided “an apt model for full participation of musicians with disabilities.”

His point, of course, is that cultures—musical and non-musical—decide what to designate as a disability. A striking case of that, he argues, is that as far as classical-music culture is concerned, most students who come to study music in the United States are disabled by a language impairment: their inability to speak English.

All of this leads Lubet to propose a general theory of disability and music, and of disability, over all. His “theory of social confluence” is that the fundamental unit of social identity is no longer the nation-state, the family, or even the individual as a fundamentally stable category, but rather the individual within constantly shifting social settings.

That theoretical perspective demonstrates the potential and importance of the new field of disability studies in music, Lubet argues. He says it adds to the orthodox social model of disability—that cultures define what disability is—by noting that individuals’ identities “morph constantly with changing circumstances or contexts.”—Peter Monaghan

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