Monday, July 20, 2015

The British Paraorchestra: Orchestral pioneers

On July 2nd and 3rd, 2015, the Fast Forward music festival took place in Bristol, England.  Headlining the festival was the British Paraorchestra, a group of virtuoso musicians who are no strangers to performing for large audiences—in 2012, they played with popular band Coldplay at the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games.  But there is something special about these musicians: all have different (some even say "extraordinary") abilities. 

The British Paraorchestra is the first large-scale ensemble composed entirely of musicians who have different abilities.  Founded in 2012 by British conductor Charles Hazlewood and television director Claire Whalley, it was created in response to the profound scarcity of musicians with different abilities Hazlewood had noticed in the orchestras with which he worked.  A veteran in the field of music (he won the European Broadcasting Union’s conducting prize in his twenties), Hazlewood first observed the lacking after his daughter Eliza was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.  In twenty years of working with orchestras, he said, he realized that he remembered seeing only three musicians with different abilities.  Once he truly registered this, he started actively looking for such musicians, and those he found became the first members of the British Paraorchestra.

Today musicians in the orchestra represent a wide variety of musical talent, with instruments ranging from the ancient to the electronic.  Orchestra member Ziad Sinno represents the ancient—in addition to the violin, he also plays the oud, a Middle-Eastern string instrument.  As a blind musician, he's had trouble finding work in orchestras because he cannot read music in the traditional way; instead he listens to a piece, sometimes on a computer, and learns to play it by ear.  His fellow performer Lyn Levett represents the electronic end of the orchestra's spectrum—she uses an iPad to create her music.  Levett has cerebral palsy, and she pre-programs sound loops on the tablet computer that she can later trigger by using her nose.

Although they have different circumstances than many performers, the most important thing to the British Paraorchestra is still the quality of their musicianship.  As Hazlewood explains, one performer he talked with after a rehearsal didn't know what kinds of different abilities the rest of the performers had, and was not really interested in knowing.  To this group, the music is what matters.

You can learn more about the British Paraorchestra on their website, in the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Bristol Post, the Western Gazette, and in The Fix magazine.  A TEDx talk given by Hazlewood and featuring the orchestra is also available on and on YouTube.

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