AMS Music and Disability Study Group Blog

Welcome to the first in a series of blog posts from members of the AMS Music and Disability Study Group (MDSG) and the Society for Music Theory Music and Disability Interest Group (SMT MDIG). Each post will include information about the person’s research and history with the study/interest group, their future plans within music and disability studies, and their vision for the discipline. We intend for these blogs to appear in a monthly rhythm, and welcome responses and comments. Any questions about the blog series should be directed to its editor, James Deaville. We begin the series with a blog post by Samantha Bassler, co-chair of the MDSG.

Music and Disability at the American Musicological Society and the Intersection of Disability Activism and Music Studies

by Samantha Bassler

The inaugural meeting of the AMS music and disability study group was at the 2013 annual meeting in Pittsburgh, with a panel on recent research by Chris Macklin, Stefan Honisch, and myself, as well as a breakfast organizational meeting for business. Blake Howe delivered an introduction to music and disability studies, which was later published on the AMS blog, Musicology Now. Before the MSDG’s official formation as an AMS study group, many musicologists studying music and disability were active with the Society for Music Theory Interest Group on music and disability, founded by Joseph Straus, and joint AMS/SMT conferences included meetings with both musicologists and music theorists present. The 2016 publication of the Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies includes contributions by both music theorists and musicologists.

The threefold mission of the MDSG highlights the scholarly and activist influence within our discipline and our Society, and through those means it intends to support disability studies and activism more broadly within the wider culture of the United States and beyond. We are an international group that uses music scholarship as our means to challenge the status quo and to augment traditional studies of music, but also as a lens through which to view culture and to advocate for the social model of disability. We want to make people aware of the discrimination faced by disabled populations, and also of the legal support enacted by governments to protect the rights of disabled people.

Presently, my academic work in music and disability studies is, broadly-speaking, to use disability as a lens for understanding cultural studies of music (mostly early-modern English music). I am currently working on a book chapter that explores disability and music as narrative devices within seventeenth-century English plays, and I am also in the early research stages of a monograph that explores the intersection of disability, gender, and musical performance in the early modern period. I have new ideas about the intersections of music and disability all the time, and think of new projects frequently. As a disability rights activist, I am an advocate and resource for fellow academics (and anyone else!) with autoimmune diseases and other invisible illnesses. Activism is an important component to disability studies, and I don’t think it is possible (or helpful!) to fully separate oneself from activism when doing scholarship about disability studies. I try to create accessible classes that integrate the wide range of students in them, and “out” myself as a disability rights activist at the beginning of each semester, in order to encourage students to acquire the appropriate accommodations for their disabilities and to ask me for help if they need it. I make sure my syllabi clearly state the name and location of the disability services offices at their university and explain the procedures for acquiring accommodations.

It is important to pursue activist work alongside our academic pursuits in disability studies, especially under the current political climate, but also because of the increased visibility of disability in popular culture. As musicologists and music theorists who conduct disability studies of music, we are responsible to (gently) remind our colleagues of ableism and of the accommodations and respect owed to students, colleagues, and others who are disabled. As an example, a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, written by Charlotte C. Gill, came under fire for insinuating that music notation is too elitist and exclusive. The author writes,

For a creative subject, music has always been taught in a far too academic way, meaning that theoretical knowledge is the main route to advancement. While there are routes into musical careers for the untrained, and many pop, rap and grime artists have never studied music formally, there are also dozens of choirs and amateur collectives that put a huge focus on musical notation.”

While many professional musicians and academics objected to this essay by signing a petition and a response in The Guardian, and even started spirited debates with the author on Twitter, there were those of us within the AMS MDSG who recognized a thread of disability throughout the piece. One paragraph struck me plainly as reading like the description of a possible disability:

“The patterns and figures of music don’t easily unravel in my mind. I suspect that’s the case for many other children and adults; some get notation, others don’t. Neither is indicative of talent, but while we do not find lateral, inclusive ways to engage people – as well as loosening our ideas of what constitutes musical ability – we are losing masses of would-be performers.”

Disability studies and activism enable us as academics to occupy two spaces with respect to the issues raised in this article. Not only are we music academics and professionals with an interest in upholding rigorous intellectual exchange within the academy, but we are also responsible for educating about music. An understanding of the accommodations required by different learning disabilities gives educators the tools to craft more accessible classrooms and courses so that no-one is excluded in music education or performance at any level.

The study group aspires to be as inclusive as its discipline, by encouraging the voices of disabled scholars and scholars of disability (and persons who are disabled and also scholars of disability) to participate and contribute their vantage points to the conversation of disability and music. To that end, we hold a CFP for our yearly meetings at the AMS and SMT, and also encourage our members to submit research in progress and posts to the blog.

Since this is my final year as chair of the study group, I defer to my successor, Jessica Holmes, to flesh out her vision for the group. I hope that the group will pursue values of inclusivity and scholarly rigor, that we will remain at the forefront of music and disability research and activism, and be the first port of call for anyone who is interested in pursuing research in music and disability studies. I end with a few suggestions for her and others to consider. Firstly, it would be wonderful to organize a conference on music and disability studies, sponsored by the MDSG, and perhaps integrating colleagues from the Society of Disability Studies, and of course the SMT Interest Group on Music and Disability. We could consult with our colleagues at the AMS Pedagogy Group for ideas on how best to organize the conference. Secondly, since we have had so many successful AMS and SMT study group sessions, it would be great to publish these as special journal issues, colloquia, or collected editions. More of our work needs to be in print or otherwise accessible to larger audiences. Finally, I challenge our group to continue building on our twinned values of activism and scholarship, within the AMS and more broadly within our disciplines of music studies.

Samantha Bassler is the co-chair of the AMS Music and Disability Study Group (AMS MDSG), having served first with Blake Howe from January 2015, then as sole chair from January 2016, and now with Jessica Holmes from January 2017, with her term officially ending in December 2017. Samantha’s first work on music and disability was published in the August 2009 issue of Music Theory Online, for a special issue on chronic illness and disability in music academia. Samantha later published on early modern music practice and disability in the journal postmedieval and in the Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies, and another article on invisible illness and music in Voices: a World Forum on Music Therapy. Samantha is an adjunct professor at the music departments of NYU Steinhardt, Rutgers University at Newark, and Molloy College.