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Why should the British Paraorchestra exist? / 9 February 2015

Charles Hazlewood, founder of the British Paraorchestra, has always been very clear about his reasons for setting up the group. When his youngest daughter was born with cerebral palsy, his eyes were opened to the world of disability, which (by his own admission) he had paid little attention to before.

This led Charles to consider disability in the context of his work as a conductor. He realised he had encountered very few disabled, professional musicians – a handful, at most – in over twenty years of working with the best musicians around the globe.

Yet, with a few cursory searches on the internet, he soon discovered a wealth of disabled musicians in the UK alone – not only fascinatingly diverse in their chosen areas of music, but supremely skilled in their craft and crying out for exposure on a bigger platform.

Aiming to provide this, Charles formed the Paraorchestra. At first, it contained only four musicians (see the very first public performance here) but it has grown since to hold around thirty. While the response to the idea has been largely positive, there have been one or two concerns. Charles addressed one of these in a piece for the Guardian:

Not everyone has been pleased with the idea. Some feel that a "disabled" orchestra somehow patronizes the disabled community. But until the Paralympics, no one took disabled athletes seriously. These people deserve to be seen and heard not because they are disabled, but because of their talent.

I will admit that I thought long and hard before joining the Paraorchestra. Naturally, I wanted reassurances that it would not patronize its members as some thought it inevitably would, and I’m happy to report it has been able to sidestep this trap by bringing together only the very best musicians available, and not becoming a free-for-all simply on the basis of having a disability.

Charles’ comparison with the Paralympic movement is apt, not only because we share the prefix and performed at the Closing Ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics, but also because the Games celebrate the huge achievements of elite sportsmen and women from the disabled community. Similarly, our musical counterpart has become a home for only the most talented musicians with disabilities, and for that I think we should make no apology.

Incidentally, Charles has often made the point that music is actually more universal than sport, and the ability of music to bind people together is beautifully demonstrated by the Paraorchestra. Where else would you find a blind sitar player, quadriplegic Headspace player and a deaf violist sat together, making music? Sport may bridge the gap between nations, but so can music, and in the former you have to segregate competitors into classes, depending on your specialism, gender, disability type, and so on.

My other principal concern at the outset, other than the resolved patronization issue, was whether or not it would last beyond the glowing year of 2012. I am only too aware that many projects like this are ‘made for TV’, and sure enough the birth of the Paraorchestra project was recorded for a Channel 4 documentary (watch that here). But any suspicions I had that the concept would be quietly dropped post-London 2012 were cast aside when I met Charles in person for the first time. He has an unstoppable drive and passion for this, fuelled by his personal experiences and the incredible music making he has been able to draw from the ensemble.

Since 2012, I would say we have been at least partially successful in capitalizing on the flying start we made. It was always going to be challenging to maintain such momentum, and while we have had some real highlights (such as performing for the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day and our first international tour to Qatar), securing hard cash and establishing links with ensembles and venues can be a frustrating process, which takes time. All I can say now is watch this space, as Charles and a few other individuals are working very hard on shaping an exciting future for the group.

I ought to return to the question I posed in the title – why all this? I often tell people that in an ideal world, the Paraorchestra wouldn’t need to exist, as disabled people would already have a space in which they can create music for the enjoyment of a large amount of people. But truthfully, there were not enough opportunities for disabled musicians before it existed, and there still aren’t. But the Paraorchestra is going some way in addressing this problem, and it should be seen as a means to an end, not an end in itself.

As always, do let me know your thoughts. I would be particularly interested to hear from people who think there are better ways in which we can tackle the under-representation of disabled musicians. Are you concerned the Paraorchestra acts effectively as another ghetto? Do you think the comparisons with Paralympic sport are misguided? Your comments and questions please!