Fellow disability studies-and-music community, meet Gaelynn Lea.* She is a freelance musician, songwriter, and violin teacher who hails from Duluth, MN. She’s recently gained notoriety as the winner of NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, a contest for “intimate video performances recorded at the desk of All Things Considered’s Bob Boilen.” Gaelynn’s submission won out of over 6,000 entries, and has been called “arresting” and “profoundly moving.” Gaelynn’s Tiny Desk concert puts her among the ranks of musicians such as Wilco, Natalie Merchant, Graham Nash, and Ben Folds! Watch here:
As it happens, Gaelynn has brittle bone disease. Because her body is small, she bows her violin like a cello. She uses a loop pedal to multiply her instrumental melodies, creating a rich textural fabric that undulates beneath her ethereal mezzo-soprano. As she explains, a live loop pedal is an ever-precarious choice: “Every time you start song, you could potentially screw the whole thing up.” Gaelynn seemingly had good access to music in public school; after aceing a music listening test in fifth grade, she began playing the violin with an orchestra teacher devoted to making adaptive accommodations. Gaelynn took a serious interest in Irish fiddle tunes in high school, and hasn’t stopped playing since. Now she’s a free-lance music teacher and performer.
In an NPR interview, worth a listen for her biographical and artistic reflections, Gaelynn speaks about the relationship between her disability and her music. Her submission video begins with herself out of the frame, a conscious artistic choice, as Gaelynn explains: “I didn’t necessarily want my disability to be the very first impression people had. It’s not because I’m ashamed of it in any way, but I really wanted my music to be judged.” We hear you, Gaelynn.
*Thanks to David Bashwiner (University of New Mexico) for drawing my attention to Gaelynn’s work.