Able Audio: Dr Anthea Skinner

Dr Anthea Skinner is musicologist, researcher, and academic with lived experience of disability. She works at the University of Melbourne in Australia. As a child growing up with disability, the school band was a place where Anthea could compete on a level playing field with her non-disabled peers and make like-minded friends.

Despite her musical success, Anthea was often the only disabled student in any band or orchestra she played in. It was clear that her disabled peers did not have the same access to music education that she enjoyed. Today, Anthea’s work at the University of Melbourne aims to help those with disabilities access the benefits of music education.

In this episode, Anthea talks to host Sam Morgan about her latest research project, the Adaptive Music Bridging Program, which connects disabled students with the latest in adaptive music technologies so they can enjoy learning a musical instrument.

The transcript

Sam Morgan: What led you to thinking about accessibility and music? 

Dr Anthea Skinner: Well, I have been disabled since I was 12, and I also took up playing the clarinet when I was 12. So I guess those two sort of things came together very, very quickly for me. I had just started playing clarinet when I became disabled, and all of a sudden I didn't have the strength to hold it.

I went back to playing recorder for a little while, which, you know, is a wonderful instrument, but not very cool when you're 12,. As opposed to the wild coolness of a clarinet. So I guess I started out by doing really, really basic things like adapting saxophone, neck straps to work for a clarinet and things like that. Very, very simple, simple little things, but it made it possible for me personally to continue playing. 

Sam: What was the first piece of assistive music technology you came across? 

Anthea: It probably was that neck strap. I started out with just a basic saxophone one. I don’t know if there's any musos out there, but saxophone ones are sort of made out of cord. They don't have much stretch in them. So I was just using one of those and I was kind of tying it in knots around the base of my clarinet, around my thumb rests, and things like that. 

And then I discovered someone had already invented one that was for clarinet and it was really sort of stretchy. It was made out of elastic and it gave my wrists a lot more support and my thumbs a lot more support. So I guess that was my first hint that it wasn't just me trying to do this, that there were other people out there who I could lean on for support and who had other ideas. Because, I think, when you're a young person with a disability, or even when you're a music teacher with a disability teaching someone with a disability, it's quite isolating. It's not particularly easy to find out where those technologies are available. 

Sam: Last year I did a research project on how music technology education can be more accessible for blind and low vision people. And I didn't realize that the first kind of piece of assistive or adaptive music technology was actually the Rhodes Keyboards and they were designed to be in soldiers hospital beds.

Anthea: Oh, right. Yeah. And, and way even before that, there were certainly, you know, before Louis Braille started in looking at braille music. They had all sorts of sort of, I can only use the word contraptions to get across the concept of notated music to blind and people with low vision.

I found a wonderful advertisement from 1860 or something where it's like, you know, new improved, easier model now only has 360 brass pieces. And I just picture these blind dudes trying to come to terms with their 360 brass pieces so they can type out a score. And you're right, the blind community absolutely has led the way in music technology, you know.

There's a logic to it, you know, blind people and people with low vision are often… Music is seen as an appropriate job for them and also often have a great passion for it. Those two things don't necessarily go together. And I guess also because of the literacy thing with with music, you know, that community has been finding ways to get their ideas across through writing.

Because that's what the rest of us have been relying on in the Western world, which is interesting because you know, most of the world actually happily plays by ear. So in some ways blind folks should be leading us more in that direction maybe rather than having to come and meet us on our terms. I think about these things anyway. 

Sam: Yeah, definitely. So how did the Adaptive Music Bridging Program come about? 

Anthea: So this is a collaboration between my employers at the University of Melbourne and the Melbourne Youth Orchestras who are the leading providers of instrumental ensemble education in Victoria, which is where I live in Australia.

I attended MYO - Melbourne Youth Orchestras when I was a kid, and I remember being, you know, I loved it. I thought it was wonderful. It was, you know, I couldn't play sport. The orchestra was my sports team. But I, you know, I often looked around and saw that I was one of very few, if often, only obviously, disabled kids in the room.

So it had been in the back of my mind for a long time that making orchestras and band and school bands more accessible was something that was important to me. And when I started working at the University of Melbourne, MYO rehearses on our campus. And so it was a very obvious sort of link.

I'm their old alumni. They're right there next to me. And they were very, very excited. They'd done some research themselves that had identified this is a problem that they weren't picking up as many disabled students as, you know, the figures say that we have in our communities.

So basically what we're doing is we're recognising this. So MYO has a whole sway of ensembles right from beginners at sort of seven or eight years old, right up through to kids who are at universities studying music in their early twenties. But to join one of those beginner bands, you need to have had a few years of instrumental lessons.

And what we realised was that for a lot of kids with disabilities - that wasn't accessible. There were no teachers to teach them. They didn't have access to accessible instruments. So we're kind of developing a bridging program that gives them that first two years of learning experience so that they can then be integrated into MYOs’ mainstream ensembles as they get older and improve, which is really important because having that pathway into a mainstream setting is really important. 

Sam: Those two years, what does that look like? Like, are there private teachers that are introduced to assistive technologies? 

Anthea: So I'm gonna start by saying we are very early in this project, so we have auditioned the kids. They will be in the classroom for the first time in February [2023]. So when I say, what are we doing, we have plans, but they're not actually sitting in the classroom doing them yet. But, essentially, our plan is to have two small groups that overlap each other.

So some kids are in both groups and that's to deal with the different support level that the various kids need. So some kids are playing highly, highly adaptive instruments where there are no teachers. And we are, to be honest, we're importing the instruments from overseas cause they aren't in the country.

So we are going to provide those kids with lessons, small group lessons, just like you would in school. And then there'll be other kids who we assess who might be playing a slightly modified saxophone like I was, you know, using extra braces and stands. They'll be able to go to a mainstream teacher and we can offer that teacher support.

So before the break, the kids who come in and need the group lessons will come in and then they'll have morning tea, and then after the break, the other kids will come in and they'll have a small ensemble where the two groups come together - the kids are having private lessons out in the community and the kids who we are having private lessons with.

They'll form just, like, a very mini, very beginner's band with eight to ten kids just to give them that experience of playing in a group. You know, for a lot of kids with disability, just that social experience. A, it's a wonderful thing, but B, it's not something that necessarily comes as easily to them as it might for kids without a disability sitting still, concentrating, not running around the room, taking turns, all of those kind of things. Being in front of an audience, you know, loud noises, having other kids in the room make loud noises. You know, all of those things that kids need to get used to. So it would also give them an experience of that kind of thing before they're joining the sort of mainstream group. That's the idea. 

Sam: So have you thought about what kind of genres will be played? 

Anthea: Look, we're very much following the path of Melbourne Youth Orchestras and they have concert bands, they have orchestras, and it's very much, I guess, well, it's age appropriate because like I said, some of the kids, they come in at eight and by the time they graduate, they're 21.

So obviously their musical interests I would hope have changed slightly, you know? But I guess think about what you hear at any school band. It is just about getting those kids a broad background so that all of the kids at some point are gonna play something that interests them and probably at some point are gonna play something that bores them because we all have different tastes.

And that's actually a really important part of learning to play in an ensemble. You don't get to play your favourite song every time. So, you know, they do sort of, like, classical stuff. The older kids do serious classical stuff. They might do TV theme songs. We're in Melbourne, we’re AFL mad here, so, you know, football theme songs, those kind of things. It's just about fostering a love of music in them, really. 

Sam: Yeah. And it seems like there's a huge emphasis on inclusion and kind of the mainstream way of doing things.

Anthea: Yeah, that's very true. And it's kind of strange because in some ways an orchestra is quite an elitist form of art and I guess we kind of are following that kind of Paralympic idea that yes, everyone should get to come along and have a go, but for the kids for whom this becomes a passion, there needs to be a pathway for them to keep moving forward.

And that's the same for any kid joining a school band, disabled or otherwise, some are gonna come in for a year, they're gonna hate it, they're gonna leave. Some are gonna come in for three or four years and make friends, and maybe join a community band when they grow up. Maybe not. And others might make a career outta it or become music teachers or composers. And so it really is just about giving kids that underlying education to allow them to make those decisions as they get older.

And I think although we are concentrating on the mainstream, it is also really important that the kids that we work with know that they're not the first disabled kids to make music, or the first disabled people to make music. They're building on a wonderful, long tradition of disabled performers that goes back hundreds of years.

I think most kids these days, certainly in Australia, can name their favourite Paralympian, but I don’t know many disabled kids who can name their favourite disabled musician and we'd love our kids to be able to come out and say, wow, you know, I'm a huge fan of Marjorie Lawrence or Zach Coleman, or Ian Dreary, or whoever.

Sam: Yeah. I think that it's always, not always, but sometimes can be the case with pathways. And speaking on pathways, you've done a bit of research on pathways for disabled musicians?

Anthea: Yeah, I guess that was a sort of a warmup research study to this so that we actually understood what it was that was missing from the education of disabled people, particularly in our home state of Victoria.

So what we did was we interviewed a cohort of professional and semi-professional musicians with disabilities. Some had had that disability their entire lives. For some, it was new and they were learning to cope with it as professional musicians who had previously not been disabled and basically, we just interviewed them about their career experiences and what worked for them and what didn't.

One of the things that we did find was that finding a music teacher, especially if you had a very obvious disability, was was very much luck of the draw. If you got lucky and you found someone who was willing and able to go out and do the research themselves to support you, which is a lot of work, then you are great. And if you had someone who either didn't have the time, or the knowledge, or the interest, then there was really nowhere else for you to go. They found themselves just knocking on one door after another, a random music teacher because there was no one. 

So I guess having talked to them about that study, or talked to those musicians through that study, one of the things in my research time was that someone needs to be able to do that. We need someone who is an expert in this field and, well, I've been a disabled musician since I was 12, so, you know? And I have a PhD in music, so why not me, you know? Why don't I become the one who sets that up and supports the next generation coming through so that they're not sort of groping the dark in the same way I was for information, you know?

Sam: What would you like to see more of in music education, in terms of accessibility and inclusion? Do you think more awareness and training needs to happen so more teachers start to use adaptive music technologies?

Anthea: Absolutely. I experience a huge amount of goodwill for music teachers. They want to be able to help. They're just not sure how. I'm situated in the creative arts and music therapy unit at my university, although I'm not a music therapist, but there's an information gap between music teachers and music therapists a lot of the time. And kids with disabilities kind of fall into middle because music therapy is a wonderful thing and it's really important and music therapists know about the equipment that is available, but it's not actually about providing music education. That's not what it's designed to do and it's not what their field of expertise is.

Music education is wonderful and really important and, you know, certainly in Australia, our universities don't train our music teachers to support people with disabilities. It's not part of their training. We would like to change that. And we are changing that slowly. So yeah, for me there is this sort of information gap that's really important.

And the other thing too is, I guess, understanding what you need from adaptive equipment in music. I think a lot of both designers and maybe even therapists focus on, or confuse perhaps, accessibility with easy to play. Instruments for professional musicians are never easy to play.

If you're playing it with your eyes or you're playing it without hands or whatever it is, however it makes it, that actually doesn't make it easier to play. In fact, it makes it harder because the rest of us have 10 fingers and that makes playing instruments really easy. 

So, if you give someone an instrument where on the first day they can master everything it can do, well, what do they do on the second day? What happens when their skills improve? How do you make sure that, just like someone playing a violin who can keep learning and keep improving and keep becoming more musical for their entire lives if they wish, you know, that is the kind of equipment that we actually need.

And it's beginning to become available now. But yeah, so I guess accessible and easy to play I guess are not the same thing, and I think that's really important to remember. 

Sam: I think I saw on the website there you were using a piece of music technology called an Eyeharp? 

Anthea: Yeah. It's basically, a computer software that attaches to an eye tracker. Same as you would use to control your mouse if you don't use your hands to do that, and you basically use that to change notes and volume in real time in performance.

That's a real game changer for people who have very little movement. But one thing, and I guess this is where the sort of music therapy and the music education come together, one thing that I as a musician hadn't thought of about is once we bring it into the room with kids who are used to using eye trackers, one of the big reasons kids are kind of often hesitant to use eye trackers to communicate is that they're slow. You have to halt over a letter before it picks it up. Music programs are specifically designed to work in real time. It’s one of the few ways that kids can actually use an eye tracker and it works instantly. You move your eyes and it's gonna play that note right now. This second, no lag, or undetectable lag. Sorry. Latency is a big discussion in our field. 

And when you say no lag, someone is gonna come up and go, no, but there is. It’s just a millisecond. But yeah, so even though we're not using it as a therapy, you actually find that kids all of a sudden are much more willing to explore their AAC devices [and] their assistive communication devices using eye tracker because they now know that they can use it to play music as well. And it's that really instant feedback. So it's quite a lovely thing to see. I didn't anticipate that at all, but you know, it works.

Sam: What other pieces of music technology are you excited about using in the programme? Or maybe technologies you’ve been impressed by? 

Anthea: I’m a big fan of an instrument called the Magic Flute, which comes out of an organization called My Breath My Music in the Netherlands. It's a MIDI wind instrument and you don't need any hands or feet to play it. You literally just change notes by moving your head up and down. You do need to be able to blow, but that's about it. And it's lovely too because the mouthpiece, you know, with 3D printing is wonderfully adaptive. You can play it through anything up to and including a drinking straw, you know?

So, if you can sip through a straw and blow bubbles through a straw, you can pretty much play this instrument. I love that. We've also been working with Monash University here in Melbourne at Sensi Lab with Dr. Alan Ilsar who's invented the air sticks, which is wonderful. It's a directional controller. So think of it like a drumstick but you don't have to hit anything. Basically, where you point, it changes the note or changes whichever parameter you'd like it to change. And we were working with a professional dancer with Cerebral Palsy named Dr. Melinda Smith, basically, you know, to test it out before we use it with kids.

As I said, we want instruments that move through the whole career. So if it works with a professional performer, it's gonna work with 12 year olds, theoretically. And, you know, Melinda, who also happens to be a poet, she's a wonderful creative artist who immediately blew our expectations out of the water of what this instrument could do.

We see it as a musical instrument. We were gonna play drums and we were gonna play harps, and all of a sudden, Melinda uses assistive communication, she struggles to speak clearly, and all of a sudden she's programming poetry into it. So where she points to different parts of the room and it gives you different lines of poetry.

I think that's one of the wonderful things about research and bringing in creatives to do these things and they just, you know, that's not what I saw the technology doing at all, but hey, we're running with it.

Sam: Takes you in different directions, I suppose, eh?

Anthea: Exactly. That's exactly it. We know any kind of creativity is wonderful for that. But I find those of us with disabilities, we just have that added edge because we do live slightly differently in the world, and therefore we have slightly different ideas to those of us around us. It's not a bad thing, you know?

Sam: Yeah. I think just like, yeah, creative ways of thinking about things and almost, you know, we can make things a bit more comfortable. Working from bed and stuff. 

Anthea: Yeah, Exactly. You know, we wouldn't have Siri if, there weren't disabled people who needed voice recognition and voice activation, you know? Absolutely. Yeah. You know, I always say, especially working in the arts, you know, no one ever got any points for being just like everybody else in the arts, you know, the capacity to be different is actually what makes us good at what we do. 

Sam: How can people begin making their music education more accessible if they don't know where to start?

Anthea: If they don't know where to start? Well, the first thing, I guess, is to not make assumptions. I mean, It's an easy thing to say everyone has the capacity to be artistic. Everyone has the capacity to make music. But of course that's not always so easy. Listen to the students you have. Often they already have the solution or their parents already have the solution.

I work with a wind repairer who recently had a kid with facial difference come in and he'd made himself nose plugs so that the air didn't come out his nose when he was playing cause he couldn't stop it. And he just needed someone to help him make them stronger so they didn't break every time.

He knew what he needed. Now, as a music teacher, and if I had a kid with a similar disability come in, I would've immediately said to him, look, go play strings. Don't play a wind instrument. Well, this kid wanted to play a wind instrument, and he's figured out how to do it. And so if we just listened to him, then we've fixed it. It’s kind of that simple. 

Reach out o adults with disabilities. You can reach out to me. It’s my job to help make these things possible. I get cold calls all the time from people saying, look, I've got this student, I don’t know what to do. Or I am this student, I don’t know what to do. And here in Australia we have Arts Access Australia. I don't know what the equivalent is in New Zealand [it is Arts Access Aotearoa], but I'm sure there are sort of support organisations that might be able to point you in the right direction, sort of disability arts organisations. But yeah, ask around and don't assume it's not possible because it is. 

Sam: Where to next? Do you have any other projects on the go?

Anthea: We’ve just put in a big grant to hopefully sort of extend our project and develop an inclusive music teachers education network across our state. So we're based right in the city of Melbourne and we've got five other regional hubs who are signed on. So we are waiting to hear if we are honoured with the grant money as we speak. So if that happens then next year we'll be about sort of ramping that up and we'll be sort of starting those sort of state wide in 2024. So yeah, I'm always planning one step ahead.

Sam: I really enjoyed hearing how Anthea has drawn on her personal experience, acknowledging the opportunities she had growing up and trying to find ways to give those same opportunities to other disabled people. The discussions around music technology treat technology not as something exciting in itself to engage with, but rather something that can help facilitate a wider participation in music making.

This podcast has been funded by the New Zealand Music Commission and brought to you with help from producer Jesse Austin-Stewart, and Arts Access Aotearoa. I’m Sam Morgan and this has been Able Audio.




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