Designing the Parachorus—Or Why I Sing with a Dog

In his 2011 TED Talk, British conductor Charles Hazlewood insists that music-making depends not on skill, but on trust. Describing past and present musical projects, Hazlewood emphasizes how trust grows through collaboration. “Where there is trust,” says Hazlewood, “there is music—by extension life.”

One of Hazlewood’s remarkable projects is the British Paraorchestra, an ensemble of disabled musicians. Paraorchestra, which debuted at TED in November, 2011, is Hazlewood’s attempt to provide a space for professional musicians with disabilities—often overlooked by professional musical organizations.

Though disabled musicians may be more prominent in 2015, the prevailing question is always, “How will they cope?” How will the blind doctoral piano student handle complicated printed music? How will the paraplegic horn player keep up with the orchestra?

Guesses made by nondisabled authorities can outweigh the actual circumstances of a disabled person’s life – as an employer, a graduate advisor, or a teacher attempts to foresee every pitfall. This preemptive troubleshooting –regularly  performed without the disabled person’s input, despite their closeness to the situation – is an example of what Benjamin Zander calls “the world of measurement.” Zander, another influential British conductor, describes two worlds: the world of measurement and the universe of possibility. (Find out more here.) In the world of measurement, every “what-if” is a potential snag, a hiccup in the smooth machinery of organizations. Every deviation is an error, and all errors are preventable, as long as we never let our guard down. In the universe of possibility, every “what-if” is a chance to learn, to imagine.

Paraorchestra is a project in the universe of possibility, a chance to re-imagine the kinds of people we expect musicians to be—and the kinds of instruments we expect them to play. It’s a chance to reinvent how we judge our bodies and our instruments – where one ends and the other begins. By establishing Paraorchestra, Hazlewood helps us question the traditions of musical performance—norms set by nondisabled musicians. If every musician onstage is disabled, “disability” can no longer be imagined as a barrier to music-making. The troublesome “what-ifs” are banished by the most effective brand of activism: people sharing their passion with others.

Though I’m not an orchestral musician, I want to bring Hazlewood and Zander’s ideas into my musical endeavors. In my 15 years of choral experience, I have always been the only singer onstage with dark glasses, my white cane tucked between the folds of a black chorus dress. No director has ever taken issue with my onstage needs, but I feel a pressure to conform every time the chorus receives a speech about “visual unity.” Even when I have mastered the choreography, body angles, entrances, and exits, I am aware of my sense of difference on the risers.

But awareness is not shame. Now, when I think about the singers who stand beside me, I ask myself, Where are the other blind musicians? Why aren’t they here with me, forging trust and performing a message of inclusion? For each time I stand on the risers with my dark glasses, I am offering a message of what it means to live a life. I want my presence to show the audience that there is nothing exceptional or extraordinary about a blind singer fully participating in a musical organization. There is no magical “overcoming” here. I carry my disability into rehearsals and onstage. Performing on the risers doesn’t make me nondisabled; it makes me human.

Two new developments are allowing me to extend my musical activism to new audiences: my guide dog and my new quartet. Though York has been to several chorus rehearsals, he and I shared our first chorus performance earlier this week. The informal setting was an ideal place for York to practice his performance training:  I placed him in a down-stay at my feet and kept one foot on his leash.

When I tell people that York will not be on the competition stage with my chorus in April, they laugh and say, “Of course not!” Because our contest songs are accompanied by vigorous choreography and because I am placed in the center of the chorus, I have chosen to leave York backstage with a friend. As I acknowledge the logic of this choice, I drift into the universe of possibility. Will all ensemble musicians be forced to leave their service dogs in the wings forever? What would happen to a guide dog in a Parachorus?

While I rehearse and perform with my quartet, I can conduct my own Parachorus experiments. With advice and encouragement, my quartet members have helped me develop York’s performance etiquette. He lies at my feet throughout every three-hour rehearsal and transfers this behavior to our live performances. We are perfecting his position because he will accompany us on the competition stage in April. When we sing with York, my quartet and I can redesign the performance space and create new expectations.

No one should be surprised to see a disabled musician waiting to audition or perform. If disabled and nondisabled musicians can make music together onstage, they can make lives together offstage. I want to replace the skepticism of measurement with an invitation to imagine, to collaborate.

2 thoughts on “Designing the Parachorus—Or Why I Sing with a Dog

  1. Emily,

    This is another great piece and why I believe you have so many gifts to offer this world. Professor York has every right to be on stage. He is an extention of you. York attends the rehersals, practices his choreography while not throwing off the others. Though you feel you are doing nothing extrodinary lets agree to disagree on this. Your message is what makes you extrodinary as well as the way you present it to the world.

    Stacey and Big Hank

  2. York attends the rehersals, practices his choreography while not throwing off the others. Though you feel you are doing nothing extrodinary lets agree to disagree on this

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