What is the sound of disability? What is the sound of a body that does not conform to standards but defies and resists? And further, is disability an instrument itself?
For me, these have been everlasting questions. I acquired my disability at the age of seven through a car accident that impaired my left hand. Before the accident, I was involved in music, playing the violin. Following the accident, I transitioned from various musical instruments more adaptable to my impaired left hand, such as trumpet and cello. However, with these instruments, I encountered challenges with adjusting my left hand to play them. For example, with the cello, we re-stringed the instrument backward so I could bow with my left hand and play pitches on the fingerboard with my right hand. With trumpet, I held most of the instrument weight in my right hand and controlled the valves with the right hand. However, trumpet is supposed to be held with the left hand and fingered lightly with the right hand. This weight imbalance caused pressure on my embouchure and challenged me to reach specific notes and overall endurance on the instrument.
I do not think I was naturally gifted or destined for a life on either of these instruments. Still, I outline all of this to highlight musical challenges following my car accident, attempting to conform to instruments I would never conform to. However, looking back, these challenges led me to compose music in that I could let my mind and imagination run free without considering what my left hand could or could not do.
Yet, as my musical practice developed, performance re-entered through singing and performing on one of my favorite instruments, an electric vintage toy organ. I discovered this instrument on one of my favorite websites, eBay, and joke it was my “ticket to Brooklyn,” as it is weird, vintage, out-of-tune, and a great future accessory to future apartment parties. However, as I grew to incorporate performance more into my practice, I also realized the organ was almost made for my body. It has chord buttons on the left side and a keyboard part on the right side and, therefore, feels organic to perform on. My left-hand does not have much dexterity, and it feels natural to push the chord buttons forward and backward and handle the right side keyboard part with my right hand. The organ has afforded me a lot musically, aesthetically, and collaboratively. It has a unique sound and tuning, providing infinite possibilities for electronic processing, and I have involved it in collaborations with collegial disabled artists, such as dancer Jerron Herman (https://jerronherman.com/).
However, as my practice has developed and work on the organ has expanded, I have longed to find and create musical instruments more directly reflective of the innate physicality of my left hand and more portable and practical options for travel. The organ is a singular instrument; however, it is fragile to travel with (it is from the 1960s, and to my knowledge, they are no longer manufactured today). I often need to ship it separately via a heavy shipping case for artistic engagements. Additionally, while the chord buttons on the organ’s left side feel natural to play with my left hand, they are not holistically reflective of my full left hand’s physicality. They only represent a push and pull mechanism, and there is more to explore with my left hand’s non-normative physicality and movements.
This has led to the desire to develop musical instruments and technologies that reflect my left hand’s physicality in hopes of forming my virtuosity. I attach to the term “virtuosity” as it is an esteemed buzzword within music contexts, often denoting the highest form of performance and artistic expression. It has been described as indicating a “highly-skilled performer” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/virtuosity). When one compliments a performance as “virtuosic” or praises a performer as a “virtuoso,” it is often not taken lightly; it is deemed a God-like figure of attainment and fulfillment. Furthermore, when I compose new works for nondisabled performers, they often encourage the material to be fast, impressive, and showcase-like, ultimately only embracing one form of virtuosity. As I have re-engaged with performing, I have wondered if and how I can access this expression through my disabled embodiment, especially if much of the typically esteemed physicality in virtuosity is unavailable.
Therefore, through experimenting with various music technologies such as accelerometers (https://mugicmotion.com/) and motion capture systems (https://www.qualisys.com/cameras/miqus/), I look forward to reconsidering concepts of musical virtuosity through disability and imagining new possibilities.