At the 2012 Paralympics, audiences were blown away by British pop-band Coldplay’s phenomenal performance, mostly for their enthusiasm and warm (albeit cheesy) lyrics. This time, the band was accompanied by the British Paraorchestra, an appearance which, according to The Guardian, was kept hidden from the public in the lead-up to the performance, making the show all the more captivating.
Performing with Coldplay was the Paraorchestra’s shot to stardom. For the musicians, all of whom are differently abled in varying degrees, the performance was their chance to prove to the world that the differently abled can be in a professional orchestra.
The British Paraorchestra was first established in 2011 by Charles Hazlewood in Bristol, South West England. With the help of a friend in the television business, Hazlewood set up the orchestra to enable musicians who were differently abled to become orchestratic musicians.
Paraorchestra of Differently Abled Musicians
Although not differently abled himself, Hazlewood’s daughter, who is said to be his main source of inspiration, has cerebral palsy. During his extensive career as a professional orchestral conductor, Hazlewood realized that there were very few disabled members of orchestras on stage. Jonathan Harper, Executive Producer of the Paraorchestra and Friends, tells us in an interview that Hazlewood began to question why he had never conducted beside a disabled musician on stage before.
“He never conducted an orchestra with anyone who is disabled and in the same way, maybe 40 or 50 years ago, there weren’t any women in an orchestra. That made him think, there must be professional disabled musicians that are out there,” Harper says.
Bristol’s concentrated efforts to expand its creative industries has made it one of England’s most creative cities. In fact, it was named a UNESCO Creative City in 2017 alongside Manchester for driving urban growth through creativity and industry – two things Bristolians are known for.
Historically known for having an emphasis on trade, Bristol’s industries today have shifted to a focus on creative media, financial services, and information technology, among others. After holding a questionable past – one with slavery in particular – high on a pedestal, Bristolians have been working diligently to ensure that people from all walks of life are part and parcel of the growth that the city is currently experiencing.
For Bristolians, the city enables musicians, artists, and everyone in between to work towards making the city more diverse and dynamic. But even with such a diverse group of people, opportunities in the city are not necessarily inclusive of and inclusive to all Bristolians – in particular those who are differently abled and children. And in order to make the city creative for all Bristolians, a number of initiatives dedicated to making music, education, and the city itself more accessible and inclusive to all have taken the city by storm in recent years.
“Disability isn’t a barrier, it’s a talent”
To date, there are 22 musicians that make up the British Paraorchestra, which is based in Bristol, and it is the only orchestra of its kind in the United Kingdom. When the orchestra first started, there were about five musicians. But, according to Harper, it was never about having a large orchestra. He says that the Paraorchestra would love to have as many differently abled musicians as possible, but to him, he’s focused primarily on their artistic growth.
While larger organizations that work with accessibility for differently abled individuals are based in London, it is a source of pride for The Paraorchestra that it continues to be based in Bristol.
According to city statistics, there are about 71,700 Bristolians that are differently abled, making up 17 percent of the more than 450,000 population. And while 75 percent of the population aged 16 and over are employed, only 24.6 percent of employable Bristolians are differently abled.
As the Paraorchestra grew, it received funding from Arts Council England, the Salisbury Trust, and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, among others, allowing it to grow exponentially. “The Paraorchestra became a kind of novelty in the sector,” Harper says to us. “They proved disability isn’t a barrier, it’s a talent.”
This kind of growth and support for differently abled Bristolians is no surprise, since the city is known to foster a culture of collaboration and cooperation in the creative industries. A few conversations here and there and, since everyone knows everyone in Bristol, the British Paraorchestra made a name for itself.
“We don’t want to be seen as an orchestra, it’s a musical collective. It’s about collaboration, integration, finding art forms and audiences that orchestras wouldn’t normally get to,” says Harper. The Paraorchestra also recently formed a partnership with Colston Hall, which is setting up a learning center for disabled musicians. It is this kind of collaboration that makes Bristol’s ongoing project of inclusiveness of Bristolians in the city’s industries all the more dynamic.
As you walk down Colston Street towards Bristol’s Center, the city’s concert hall stands tall. Colston Hall, named after one of the city’s pioneers and well-known slave trader, Edward Colston, has been operating as Bristol’s concert hall for 150 years. Owned by the Bristol City Council, the Hall has been undergoing renovations and a restructuring of its main activities for the past 10 years.
In 2011, the City Council established the Bristol Music Trust as an independent charity to manage the concert building and to be a catalyst and development agency for music happening across the spectrum in Bristol. For the Council, the British Music Trust is a means to make Colston Hall entrepreneurial, lively, and attract local funding, all of which can’t be done as a local authority.
Inside the hall’s main building, under the grandiose high ceilings and bright lights, sits the hall’s foyer, which was built in 2009. The foyer, which has enabled the hall to have a cafe and meeting rooms, is part of the first phase of Colston Hall’s regeneration project. The second phase, dubbed #TransformTheHall, which is slated to begin this year, will focus on a complete overhaul of the design of the main hall, the construction of a third performance space, and the development of the National Centre for Inclusive Excellence for differently abled musicians.
Colston Hall has two main focuses: musical events and musical education. The organization runs a program of concert events in the music hall, which includes festivals that are organized with other partners across the city. The hall also runs an educational program known as Bristol Plays Music, which works on teaching music in schools across the city. “I have 80 teachers on my payroll. What we’re trying to do really is to tie those educational opportunities with what happens in the concert hall,” Chief Executive of the Bristol Music Trust, Louise Mitchell, tells us.
Although Colston Hall remains Bristol’s main music hall, there has been push back from the government in its general direction of growth. According to Mitchell, government does not seem to be buying into what the Music Trust is doing with the Hall. “[The push back is] partly because people don’t understand what we are. A lot of people think we run a building. We do run a building, but that’s not what we’re for.”
As celebrated as it may seem in Bristol, the British Music Trust is still seen by the current mayor of Bristol as “doing things that are not relevant to what [the city] does,” according to Mitchell. And while that might have been true in the past, Mitchell thinks the work Colston Hall is dedicated to is different. “What I’ve got to show to [the mayor] is that is not true now,” she says.
This, however, hasn’t stopped the wider community in Bristol from getting behind the British Music Trust and the changes they’re trying to make for differently abled musicians. “The nice thing about working in Bristol is [that] all the institutions work together. We meet for dinner quite often and we hang out together as collaborations arise from that gentle stuff,” Mitchell tells us. “And everyone is quite open to that.”
As Colston Hall closes its doors for two years on June 9th to begin the second phase of renovations, the British Paraorchestra will come on board to help develop the National Center for Inclusive Excellence. Colston Hall hopes that the Center, with the help of the Paraorchestra and other stakeholders, will focus on providing a platform for the differently abled to learn about music.
“We do think, but we don’t think together enough. I want to do that with my team,” Mitchell tells us. This kind of collaboration and closeness that enables a collaborative culture is held highly by Bristolians – the growth of one is the growth of another.
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