Disability Pride Month is celebrated in July, commemorating the passing of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in July 1990. The act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in public services and hiring, and was an effort to break down barriers that prevent disabled people from fully participating in the world. People with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the United States, so it’s no surprise that the disability community includes many composers and performers now and throughout history. Read about 5 disabled musicians whose lives remind us that creativity, drive, and talent exist regardless of ability.
One of world’s most famous living musicians, Itzhak Perlman has reached new heights of stardom as a classical musician, conductor, and educator. Perlman is the recipient of 16 Grammy awards and 4 Emmy award, has performed for multiple U.S. presidents, and given concerts all over the world. Born in Tel Aviv, Israel, Perlman contracted polio at the age of four, and has used mobility aids ever since. He moved to the U.S. at age 13 to attend Juilliard, appearing on the Ed Sullivan show as a teenager and making his Carnegie Hall debut at 18 years old. Perlman has been called one of the best violinists of all time, among the ranks of his former teacher Ivan Galamian and Jascha Heifetz. He’s appeared with the world’s major orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, and Boston Symphony Orchestra. The virtuoso spends his summers at the Perlman Music Program teaching young prodigies of the music world. Take a listen to Perlman performing the first movement of Beethoven’s String Trio in C minor with Lynn Harrell and Pinchas Zukerman .
Gaelynn Lea became interested in classical music at an early age and was encouraged by an elementary school teacher to pick up an instrument after earning the only perfect score in her class on a music listening test. Born with the genetic condition osteogenesis imperfecta that causes complications in the development of bones and limbs, she developed a technique for holding the violin in front of her like a cello while using her foot to anchor it in place. She came to national prominence after winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert competition in 2016 and has toured nationally and internationally since. Lea sings and plays a range of traditional fiddle tunes and haunting original songs. She was recently tapped to compose music for a Tony-nominated Broadway production of Macbeth and is also the founder of the organization RAMPD—Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities.
Music has the uncanny ability to thrive under any and all conditions. No matter the circumstance, we’ve always made music. That is the story of Chicago native, Norman Malone. A budding piano virtuoso since the age of 5, Malone suffered a traumatic childhood injury, paralyzing the right side of his body and preventing the use of his right foot and hand. Not ready to give up on music, Malone taught himself how to play with only his left hand and foot and found pieces for the left hand written by Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist that lost his arm during World War I. Malone went on to earn his undergraduate and master’s degree from DePaul University. He taught choral music in CPS schools and kept playing the piano. When a three-part Chicago Tribune series about Malone was published, he suddenly found himself with requests upon requests and an invitation to perform Maurice Ravel’s For the Left Hand with the West Hartford Symphony Orchestra. Malone had been practicing the piece for 60 years, and was finally able to perform it with an orchestra and audience at the age of 79. His story was chronicled in an aptly named documentary For the Left Hand. Malone continues to play and appear at events around Chicago.
Listen to a French jazz recording from the 30’s or 40’s, with an iconic clarinet blowing and soft brush hits on the drum and cymbals, and there’s a chance you’ll be able to hear Romani-FrenchJean “Django” Reinhardt keeping time with crisp guitar strokes. One of the most prominent and famous European jazz guitarists, Reinhardt was of Romani-French heritage and grew up near Paris playing violin, banjo, and guitar, and by 15 was already busking in cafés, though it wasn’t until later in his life that he started playing jazz. His career might have been cut short in 1928 after his right leg and two fingers on his left hand were badly injured in a caravan fire. Needless to say, this would have spelled disaster for most guitarists, but Reinhardt managed to reinvent his entire technique with the use of only two fingers, using the others later on only to bar chords. After hearing a number of jazz records, including some by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, he was inspired to work as a jazz guitarist from 1934 to 1953, introducing to the music his own sound and new styles of playing chords.
Ludwig van Beethoven
If you know of just one disabled musician, it’s likely Beethoven. Famous for composing after having lost his hearing, Beethoven is the landmark figure in classical music. His hearing issues, which began in his late 20s, made performing the piano difficult for him, a major source of income at the time. Regardless, he continued to compose and the pieces became much more “Beethoven” in construction—they were sometimes violent, heavily infused with feeling, and much different from his earlier works, which had been influenced by Mozart and Haydn. Having lived during the transition between the Classical and Romantic periods, Beethoven wrote symphonies, chamber pieces, and piano pieces, among other things. Take a listen below to his infamous Symphony No. 5 in C minor.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Thank you to the three CYSO Social Media Team members who contributed to this blog post: Abigail AuYeung (cellist in Symphony Orchestra), Tom Gotsch (bassist in Jazz Orchestra and Symphony Orchestra), and Alyssa Shih (violinist in Symphony Orchestra).