Since its first performance at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, the British Paraorchestra has grown from a one-off assembly to an ongoing concern now under the auspices of a charity, The Paraorchestra and Friends. Its staff of three is led by founder and artistic director Charles Hazlewood, and its turnover has risen from £137,000 in 2015-16 to almost £400,000 in 2016/17. Of the latter figure, 37% was received as grants from Arts Council England, another 36% in performance fees, 9% via international work through the British Council – although there is an expectation that this funding will decrease in future years – and the final 18% from trusts, foundations and individual support.
Mission: a platform for outstanding musicians who happen to be disabled
Charles Hazlewood admits that it wasn’t until his youngest child was born with cerebral palsy that he became engaged with the disabled community – and began to notice their absence in his field. “I started to wonder why it was that in 25 years, during which I’d gotten to know orchestras all over the world, I’d never come across musicians with disability in any of those groups. I also started to think about the Paralympics and how no one who watches the Paralympic Games thinks: here’s a nice therapy for some poor wannabe disabled athletes. It’s only about world-class sport. And if music is a more universal experience than sport, for everyone on the planet, why are we so far behind in this respect?”
This thought process led him to establish the British Paraorchestra (BPO), initially a group of “20 amazingly talented musicians, who happened to have disabilities”, which gave its debut performance in 2012 as part of the London Olympics closing ceremony. He says: “Getting to that stage was not easy because people, even the most liberal-minded, educated, sensible people on our planet, have a real problem putting the words disability and excellence in the same sentence. It took a lot of people in the decision-making bodies around the Paralympics to relax and to trust that actually this thing would be good.”
In the five years since, BPO has relocated from London to Bristol, where Hazlewood feels it is better able to “build a loyal following as we incubate new projects”. Calling it an orchestra is, he admits, “a playful use of the word – because it can mean anything you want it to mean”. In the case of the Paraorchestra, it means “20-26 virtuoso soloists, , all of them coming from different corners of the musical spectrum”: alongside the conventional violinists, viola-players and clarinettists are people playing lap-steel guitar, sitar, oud, Celtic harp and baroque lute. Hazlewood recalls: “When I put together the first members, for the Paralympics, the shocking fact was that a good proportion of these musicians had actually never really made music with another human being in their whole lives. Everything they’d done they’d done on their own, because there aren’t the opportunities, there aren’t the platforms.”
Creating “a platform for outstanding musicians who happen to be disabled” is now the first of BPO’s “two primary objectives”. This can happen in a number of ways: the BPO deliver three or four large-scale, bespoke projects annually “which show the orchestra as a glorious thing in its own right”; Hazlewood works to integrate BPO’s musicians into his other groups (for instance, in 2016 his chamber orchestra Army of Generals, featuring “a healthy proportion of the British Paraorchestra”, headlined the Park Stage at the Glastonbury festival, performing Philip Glass’s Heroes Symphony); and the Paraorchestra also acts “a bit like an agency”, supporting its members in getting involved in other performing or composing projects. All this activity supports the second, inter-related objective, which is “to change the perspectives of the world so that they no longer think it’s surprising to witness world-class music-making where the people on stage have disabilities”.
The difficulties Hazlewood faced in getting Paraorchestra programmed into the Olympics closing ceremony set the pattern for the challenges that followed:
1: False assumptions
“Even if someone has heard about the project, they will still fall back on a basic assumption: they’ll either think it’s a project for kids or they’ll think it’s something to improve the lives of a small number of musicians with disabilities. Sorry: I wasn’t put on the planet to establish a feel-good therapy project, I am only interested in making world-class music. I have to keep restating that this is not in order to make nice lives for the musicians who happen to be members of the British Paraorchestra: it’s all about bringing about wholesale change.”
2: A lack of infrastructure
The changes Hazlewood seeks are not only in people’s attitudes, but in the physical infrastructure of the classical music scene. Even if one of the big London orchestras wanted to integrate a BPO musician into its ranks, he points out, “you already meet a brick wall which is that most concert halls, even in the UK which is pretty enlightened in terms of disability compared to many countries, do not have a stage that you can get on to if you use a wheelchair. It’s as basic as that. The terrible truth I’ve discovered over the past few years is that everyone wants to do the right thing – but how much energy are they going to use in achieving that? Whenever a venue decides they want to do some work with us, they invariably have to spend an inordinate amount of money building ramps, putting in lifts, putting in special accessible loos. It’s a heck of a commitment.”
These fundamental problems extend to education: “Many of the educational institutions, music institutions, haven’t got a clue how to train up a violinist who plays a digital violin. We need to completely rejig our thinking globally, as a community, about how we educate, and how we create situations and scenarios where there is genuinely a level playing field.”
Hazlewood’s commitment to the BPO is supported by the impact he sees it having on audiences: “People are rampantly moved and uplifted and inspired by the project, because they realise that there are no barriers to great music-making. And the more audiences see the work, are stimulated by the work, the more people will change their over-arching perspective about disability, which is unfortunately still so negative.”
Integral to that perspective is an assumption that:
“disabled people have everything to gain by becoming, as it were, fully paid-up members of the able-bodied community, by joining our institutions, by becoming ‘equal’. And that’s to misunderstand a fundamental truth, which is that actually able-bodied people have a huge amount to gain from working with disabled people.”
Working with the BPO has been a “massive life lesson” for him, and his plan is to continue to advocating for these musicians across the globe. “Every conventional orchestra that I work with, in Europe and the Far East and the States, I am always banging on about the Paraorchestra to see if I can catalyse action. We’ve got ongoing conversations with institutions on the west coast of America, and in Scandinavia in particular, which is an amazing hotbed of potential. We’re just going to continue doing it, keep garnering more and more attention, and persuading more and more people that this is work that needs to be taken up and developed all around the world.”
Success, he says, “takes massive funding, takes massive vision, takes massive energy”. But Hazlewood believes that the first step is to change perspectives: “because once hearts and minds are moving in the right direction, then finance and logistical wherewithal follows”.