Project offers new lease of life to disabled former musicians

Dr Nuria Bonet and Charlotte Storey

Participants are being sought for a life changing project designed to help injured or ill former musicians reconnect with the joy of playing. 

Researchers at the University of Plymouth are bringing together a group of people who, because of mental health or physical injury, are no longer able to play their instruments. They are particularly interested in hearing from current or ex-military and other services (police, fire etc) personnel who would like to take up playing again.

The academics will work with the group, making individual adaptations to the way instruments are played such as avoiding weaker hands and even using other parts of the body. They will also develop equipment tailored to each musician, and provide psychological support. 

Music will be composed specifically for participants and their abilities, with a series of rehearsals culminating in a public performance by the group on Saturday 18 April 2020.

The project is the brainchild of composer and Associate Lecturer in Music Dr Nuria Bonet and Charlotte Storey, Head of Voice in Plymouth Conservatoire. It will make use of the expertise in assistive music technology found in the University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR). 

The collaboration is inspired by Charlotte’s story: a former professional saxophonist, she played with the likes of Rod Stewart during a high-profile career. However, a series of shoulder operations led to the complete removal of most of the bone in her upper right arm, leaving her unable to hold her instrument, and unable to play. 

While the project’s primary aim is to help participants, the two are also hoping to find a way for Charlotte to begin playing again, and join the volunteers on their journey back to musical expression.

She said: 

“I haven’t played for three years. Previously the saxophone was about 95 per cent of my personality, so not having that in my life has been extremely challenging. I know I’ll never be a professional saxophonist again. But for my own peace, I need to find out how to express myself through the instrument in some alternative way.”

Alongside her role at the University, Charlotte also works with Royal Marines musicians on performance development. 

She continued: 

“I’m proudly disabled, and I can honestly say that it brings opportunities - like this - that would never have come my way otherwise. I’m interested in the process of getting through the disability and back to normal life. When this happens it has a powerful domino effect - by improving things for one person, you almost bring a whole community of people back to life. Aside from this, we expect various and perhaps surprising results when we start to explore alternative ways of playing instruments.” 

Nuria said: 

“We’re planning to bring the group together this autumn. The idea is not to put them back in a box they might no longer feel comfortable in, we’ll work with them to find out what it is that they actually want to play. It might be pop or it might be a military march, but either way, the pieces will be bespoke to each person’s musical abilities, not disabilities.

“We want to change the way we think about disabled musicians. It’s not about forcing them into ‘normality’, it’s about celebrating what they can do. I’d encourage anyone who hasn’t played for a while because of injury or mental health to get in touch. People might not have thought about how much playing again could improve their lives.”

The April event will be the first in a brand new ICCMR Musical Research Concert series, which replaces and builds on the success of the Centre’s Contemporary Music Festival. Last year’s festival featured the BBC Singers performing a new opera written by Centre Director and Professor in Computer Music Eduardo Miranda, as well as many other original pieces written by ICCMR researchers.

For more information or if you would like to take part in the project, contact Nuria on nuria.bonet@plymouth.ac.uk or 07975 521021.

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Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR)

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