Disability, Advocacy, and Musicology

We continue with the third in the series of blog posts from officers of the Music and Disability Study Group (MDSG). As always, we welcome responses and comments. Any questions about the blog series should be directed to its editor, James Deaville.

Disability, Advocacy, and Musicology
by Michael Accinno

“Disability could never happen to me.” Like many nondisabled people, I often used this assumption to make sense of my early encounters with disability. Whether staring at classmates with down syndrome or walking by the sidewalk placards of homeless Vietnam War veterans, I learned to define the borders of disability by placing myself—and my loved ones—squarely on the outside. I was wrong. As my grandparents aged and developed chronic illnesses, I watched as they slowly transformed before my eyes. Their bodily impairments (cancer; strokes; paralysis) often necessitated accommodation (home health aides; walkers) and care. Suddenly, disability did not seem like such a distant possibility anymore.

I can’t say for sure whether these disability encounters were on my mind when I first came across Joseph Straus’s book Extraordinary Measures (2011) in my university’s library. Since then, however, as my involvement in disability studies in musicology has grown, I frequently revisit my prior experiences with disabled family members, colleagues, and fellow citizens, seeking to further interrogate my own biases and misconceptions. As a nondisabled scholar, I always assume that disabled people are the most reliable sources of knowledge about their musical experience. To paraphrase my colleague Jessica Holmes, disabled musicians are “expert listeners” whose intuitions have yet to fully enrich musicology and its practitioners (Holmes, 2016).

In my own research, I use disability as vehicle to explore the musical culture of the United States during the nineteenth century. In my chapter on organ grinders in the Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies, I consider the role of disabled Union veterans, thousands of whom performed as street musicians in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. More recently, I have shifted focus, completing a dissertation that examines the education of blind musicians at American schools for the blind (Accinno 2016). Currently, I am in the early stages of revising my dissertation into a book, tentatively titled “Gestures of Inclusion: Blindness, Music, and Pedagogy in the United States.” In it, I explore the lives of four figures who shaped emergent social understandings of blindness and music in the United States: Fanny Crosby, the prolific blind hymn lyricist; Samuel Gridley Howe, social reformer and founder of the Perkins School for the Blind; John Sullivan Dwight, music critic and Perkins trustee; and Francis Joseph Campbell, a blind teacher and music director at Perkins.

As I imagine it, the AMS Music and Disability Study Group will continue to foster collaborative projects within and without the AMS. Our shared online bibliography has continued to expand, and remains an important resource for graduate seminars and for scholars considering a disability-related project (to submit an update, please click here.)

I echo Samantha Bassler’s suggestion of a standalone conference on music and disability, and I would be prepared to co-organize a panel on blindness or disability in the nineteenth century. In a future national meeting, I would also like to suggest that the Study Group sponsor a lecture-recital by a disabled musician. Such a performance could prove attractive to other segments of the Society’s membership (especially with a coveted day-time conference slot!). Lastly, I hope that we musicologists continue to partner with disability activists and communities—to listen patiently to their expertise, and to collaborate with them as requested. I am thinking in particular of Andrew Dell’Antonio’s recent work with autistic activists Amy Sequenzia and Elizabeth “Ibby” Grace—important models of collaboration that benefit scholars and disability activists in equal measure (Sequenzia, 2015; Dell’Antonio and Grace, 2016).

In closing, I return to my original conceit: disability can (and will) happen to me, some day. Until then, I pledge to used my privileged position as a scholar of disability to advocate for improved care, accommodation, and above all—acceptance.

Michael Accinno is the social media officer of the AMS Music and Disability Study Group. He has presented papers on music and disability at the American Musicological Society, the Society for American Music, and the Society for Disability Studies. Currently, he is serving as a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Music at the University of California, Riverside.


Accinno, Michael. “Gestures of Inclusion: Blindness, Music, and Pedagogy in Nineteenth-Century Thought.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Davis, 2016.

Dell’Antonio, Andrew and Elizabeth J. Grace. “No Musicking about Us without Us!” Journal of the American Musicological Society 69 (2016): 553–558.

Holmes, Jessica A. “Expert Listening beyond the Limits of Hearing: Music and Deafness.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 70 (Spring 2017): 171–220.

Straus, Joseph. Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Sequenzia, Amy. “Autistic and Epileptic, In a Rock Concert.” The Avid Listener, 26 October, 2015. http://www.theavidlistener.com/2015/10/autistic-and-epileptic-in-a-rock-concert.html

Call for Papers: Music, Disability, and Intersectionality

Call for Papers: evening session of the AMS Music and Disability Study Group in Rochester, New York, 9–12 November 2017

Since the 1990s, disability studies has shared the constructivist perspective of feminist theory, queer theory, and critical race theory: disability is a socially and environmentally bound form of difference, and not biologically determined, as it is often portrayed in medical discourse. Moreover, scholars and activists are increasingly attuned to the ways disability intersects with gender, sexuality, race, and other positions of marginality and categories of identity. These interlocking sites of difference shape musical experience in profound and unpredictable ways. Intersectionality is thus a fruitful and timely critical lens through which to examine the relationship between music and disability as our scholarship moves forward.

The Music and Disability Study Group will sponsor a session on the intersection of disability and other positions of identity, methodologies, and fields of study. We seek proposals that push the boundaries of studying music and disability, and engage in non-traditional methods of presentation. Submissions may be proposed for a variety of formats, including but not limited to: collaborative presentations, short position papers, longer research papers, workshops, interviews, and traditional conference presentations. Proposals should clearly describe (1) the argument you will make or the information you will convey, (2) the proposed format, and (3) the estimated duration of your presentation. Please submit abstracts of 250 words to disability.and.music@gmail.com no later than 16 April 2017. The proposals (with all identifying information removed) will be read by the officers of the Music and Disability Study Group: Samantha Bassler and Jessica Holmes (co-chairs), Michael Accinno (social media officer), and James Deaville (blog editor). You will receive notification on the final status of your proposal by 23 April 2017.

Disability and Deaf Studies Events at SEM 2016

Posted on behalf of Elyse Marrero, Chair of the SEM Disability and Deaf Studies Special Interest Group (website: http://ddstudiessem.wixsite.com/music)

The SEM Disability and Deaf Studies Special Interest Group is pleased to announce the following events at the annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology in Washington, D.C. (November 10–13):

The second annual meeting of the SEM Disability and Deaf Studies Special Interest Group will take place on Thursday November 10 from 12:30-1:30PM in the Governor’s Boardroom. If you are interested, last year’s minutes are posted in the archive section of our website at: ddstudiessem.wixsite.com/music/archive. We will hold elections and discuss our plans towards an SEM position statement on access.

Our first (!) sponsored roundtable, “Accessible Music Pedagogy and Scholarship: Accommodations for Bodily Difference and Disability,” will also be held on Thursday November 10. This event will take place in the Palladium Ballroom from 4-5:30PM and will be streamed online through SEM. Depending on the WiFi access, I plan on streaming our meeting and roundtable on periscope through my twitter account, @starwarselyse. We also plan on streaming through Facebook Live on our Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/groups/1669784799972999/?ref=bookmarks.

Chair: Michelle D. Jones, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired
Ailsa Lipscombe, University of Chicago
Felicia Youngblood, Florida State University
John Murphy, University of North Texas
Meghan Schrader, University of New Hampshire
Joan Titus, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

This roundtable explores opportunities for growth in accommodating diversely-abled students and faculty in music programs within higher education settings. Adaptive technology, college readiness programs, and increasing recognition of a wide variety of disabilities–both visible and invisible–have enabled people with a variety of abilities and bodily differences to participate in academia as students, faculty, and independent scholars. While greater inclusion has benefitted our field by introducing a more diverse choir of scholarly voices, it has also revealed the need to critically examine how we present content and communicate scholarly ideas. This roundtable provides practical strategies to ensure the success of differently-abled scholars and students through the insights of five scholars who have direct experience with disability. They will explore the ways in which their participation in higher education has been impacted by disability, as well as how they have adapted their teaching and learning styles to accommodate their students and/or selves. The panel will begin with brief presentations on: 1) being a blind or low-vision student in oculocentric classrooms; 2) having a nonverbal learning disability while attending graduate school in musicology; 3) showing empathy and developing adaptive teaching techniques for students who have disabilities; 4) navigating school and academia with an invisible disability; and 5) accommodating students who have autism and related neurodevelopmental differences. Together these perspectives expand the discourse surrounding inclusion and acceptance in institutions of higher learning.

If you have any questions or would like to sign up for the SIG newsletter, email us at DDStudiesSEM@gmail.com.

Agenda and Program for Music and Disability Events at AMS/SMT 2016

Greetings! The annual AMS/SMT conference is nearly upon us, and it promises to be a stimulating and exciting event. Please find attached the program for the evening session, “Cripping the Music Theory/Music History Curriculum” (on Thursday, 3 November, from 8–11pm), and the agenda for the business meeting (on Saturday, 5 November, from 12:15–1:45pm).

Safe travels to everyone attending the conference, and we will see you in Vancouver!

2016 Program and Business Meeting Agenda

Music and Disability Events at AMS/SMT in Vancouver

The AMS Music and Disability Study Group (MDSG) and the SMT Interest Group on Music and Disability (SMT IG) are pleased to announce the following papers and meetings at the joint annual meeting of the American Musicological Society and Society for Music Theory in Vancouver (3–6 November):

1. The MDSG and SMT IG are co-sponsoring a special session on music pedagogy and disability, “Cripping the Music Theory/Music History Curriculum,” to be held during the Thursday evening session from 8–10 PM in Grand Ballroom A.

The session will feature presentations on integrating music and disability as a common perspective within the standard core curriculum in music history and music theory. Following the presentation, and in response to each paper, six scholars of music and disability studies will conduct a roundtable discussion on music, disability, and pedagogy.

Program committee and organizers:

Samantha Bassler (New York University and Westminster Choir College of Rider University), chair, AMS Study Group on Music and Disability
Bruce Quaglia (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities), chair, SMT Interest Group on Music and Disability

Roundtable of Respondents:

Michael Bakan (Florida State University), Andrew Dell’Antonio (The University of Texas at Austin), Blake Howe (Louisiana State University), Stephanie Jensen-Moulton (Brooklyn College, City University of New York), Laurie Stras (University of Southampton), Joseph Straus (The Graduate Center, City University of New York)

Participants and Mini Abstracts:

William Cheng (Dartmouth College): “Inspiration Porn: A Classroom Quandary”

Here’s what I have learned from my students: teaching disability in the music classroom poses a challenge because music is Ability Studies. In my paper, I present the obstacles and rewards in teaching cases of inspiration porn to undergraduates via overcoming narratives on reality television. I conclude with the quandaries of instilling values of cynicism versus optimism in my students: that is, a wholesale rejection of inspiration porn versus the tempered recognition that, if or when we do allow ourselves to be moved, different wisdoms may nonetheless come to us in kind.

Robin Wallace (Baylor University) and Jeannette Jones (Boston University): “The Deaf Composer: Teaching Beethoven”

Our presentation outlines a class session that begins with myths about how Beethoven experienced music, drawing on media depictions and familiar stories. We offer a more nuanced discussion of deaf musical experience based on interviews with current deaf musicians and bring this to bear in Beethoven’s music by examining some of his manuscripts and sketches that indicate Beethoven experiencing music in visual and tactile ways.

James Deaville (Carleton University): “Teaching ‘Madness’, Teaching Schumann: A Workshop

This presentation aims to open up a dialogue about how we present the lives and works of composers who experience the disability of madness, through a workshop on teaching Robert Schumann. Based on our knowledge of his life and works, we—the panelists and audience—will collectively reflect on pedagogical approaches to Schumann and his madness, which in turn can inform our teaching of other “mad” composers.

Stefan Sunandan Honisch (Vancouver, British Columbia): “Disability Aesthetics as a Pedagogical Framework: Implications for the Study of Piano Repertoire”

This lecture-recital suggests ways of applying an aesthetics of disability to the curricula of undergraduate courses in piano repertoire. I will demonstrate my approach through two case studies: Frederic Chopin’s Fantasie in F minor, and Cesar Franck’s Prelude Chorale and Fugue, two works which demand very different kinds of virtuosity from the performer, and which therefore configure the reception of the bodies of performers according to necessarily divergent aesthetic frameworks. In exploring the ways that discourses of virtuosity implicitly and explicitly write the disabled body out of large-scale piano repertoire of the nineteenth century, my lecture-recital simultaneously engages the musicological and pedagogical limits of a disability-aesthetics approach.

2. The joint business meeting of the AMS MDSG and the SMT IG on Music and Disability will be held on Saturday, 12:15–1:45 PM (Port McNeil Room).

During the meeting, a forum will be held on new scholarship in music and disability studies, to introduce new scholars and further discussion about topics of mutual interest. The workshop participants are Feilin Hsiao, University of the Pacific; Virginia Whealton, Indiana University at Bloomington; Alejandro Tellez Vargas, University of North Texas; Tekla Babyak, Cornell University.

An agenda will be posted prior to the start of the conference. Please e-mail Samantha (s.e.bassler at merton dot oxon dot org) if you have an item of business for the meeting.

3. There are a two other papers featured on the conference program that pertain to music and disability studies:

  • On Thursday afternoon, Erin K. Maher (Delaware Valley University) will present a paper entitled, “The Lens of Disability in Darius Milhaud’s Postwar U.S. Reception” (3:30–4:15 PM, Junior Ballroom D)
  • On Saturday afternoon, Michael Accinno (University of California, Davis) will present a paper entitled, “A Music Conservatory for the Blind” (2:00–2:45 PM, Pavilion Ballroom B )

Please e-mail Michael (maccinno@ucdavis.edu) to publicize any other details about music and disability events at AMS/SMT.