Setting the stage

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Scottish Culture & Heritage
13 February 2024

For Scotland’s disabled musicians and composers: Drake Music Scotland

Rowan Boase

‘Making culture inclusive’ is one of our interests under our Scottish Culture and Heritage strand. Here, Drake Music Scotland explain how they are working to remove barriers for disabled musicians and composers and to showcase their talents.

Key learnings:

  • Disabled musicians and composers are likely to face many barriers in developing their careers.
  • The mainstream music world has much more to do to be inclusive in its practices.
  • Changes that make creative opportunities more inclusive can also create more positive experiences for everyone.
  • Some of the most exciting work is created in collaboration and when each person’s strengths are recognised.

Imagine a world where music knows no barriers: where ground-breaking new music from skilled disabled musicians and composers comes alive for everyone. That’s the vision Drake Music Scotland (DMS) is turning into reality.

Founded in 1997, DMS has its roots in enabling young disabled people to develop their musical skills and to play together. Alongside empowering young disabled people to discover their musical talents, they’ve pioneered innovations like the Figurenotes accessible notation system, and trained hundreds of educators to embrace inclusive technologies and teaching methods.

What support does an artist need?

But the journey doesn’t end there. As young musicians blossom into adults, the question arises: where do they go next? Enter DMS Create, a programme supporting artist-led projects, enabling disabled musicians and composers to create new music, develop their careers and access prestigious mainstream opportunities.

“There’s no infrastructure really for disabled people to be a musician,” says Artistic Director Pete Sparkes. “The young people we work with want to continue doing music, so what we’ve been working on really hard for the last couple of years is the question ‘what kind of support does an artist need, in order to achieve their ambitions?”

One example is their collaboration with the Hebrides Ensemble. This prestigious chamber group joined forces with disabled composers, creating a successful space for artistic exploration.

Ocean of Stars by Sarah Lianne-Lewis performed by Will Conway and Rhona Smith. Presented by Drake Music Scotland and Hebrides Ensemble.

“There are disabling barriers around composers working with ensembles,” explains Pete. “It’s a pretty cut-throat world if you make a mistake or if you aren’t able to deliver exactly what they want within two weeks. We’ve stretched out the writing time and tried to make it a much more welcoming process. My main reflection is that the Ensemble players and the composers actually enjoyed themselves. We would like to challenge the idea that it has to be hard work and you have to be slightly terrified for it to be professional!”

But the impact goes beyond individual artists. DMS and their artists are catalysts for change in the music world itself.

One powerful example is the #LetMeOnStage campaign. Spearheaded by DMS artist and Board member Neil Patterson, it secured a wheelchair lift for the stage at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall performance venue, previously inaccessible to performers like Neil.

“We shine a light on what accessibility truly means. These organisations, venues and professionals who live and work in the mainstream are gaining this invaluable experience of working with disabled people which they can then take to other scenarios and it becomes part of their working practice.” DMS Chief Executive Thursa Sanderson.

Long-term, flexible support matters

The Foundation has supported DMS with a grant of £72,000 over three years. Multi-year funding has been particularly important for DMS Create because their artists often require a longer time period to work on a project – time is itself an access issue. And the flexibility of the funding has been helpful, too, enabling them to adapt their plans for delivery based on learning and feedback.

Unlocking artistic potential

Ultimately, DMS envisions a future where accessibility is seamless and disabled and non-disabled artists collaborate effortlessly – with exciting results. This vision isn’t just about inclusion, it’s about unlocking artistic potential. “We’re not interested in just promoting disabled musicians as a kind of extraordinary example of something ‘other’,” says Pete, reflecting on an Edinburgh Fringe collaboration between DMS’ iPad orchestra and Kazakh ensemble Eegeru. “That piece simply included all of the musicians performing at their best level. It’s much more important to recognise that artistic achievement, than focus on their disability.”


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