Conference Report: Music and Disability at the Society for American Music 2015

The next feature in our series of guest blog posts is by Michael Accinno, a doctoral candidate in musicology at the University of California at Davis. His previous studies include a bachelor’s degree in voice from Rice University, and a master’s in musicology from the University of Iowa. Accinno’s research focuses on music and politics, the reconstruction era, and disability studies, and has given papers on such topics at the Society for American Music, the CUNY Graduate Center Symposium on Music and Disability, and the UC Davis Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Symposium.

Is disability studies still an “emerging” area of research within musicology? At what point do we get to take the training wheels off and acknowledge that critical discussions of disability—like gender, sexuality, and race—are simply part of what we do as scholars? I often find myself renewing these questions whenever I attend academic conferences, and this month’s annual meeting of the Society for American Music (SAM) was no exception.

Encompassing the study of the music of the Americas, SAM has always included a dizzying array of places, styles, and peoples. Reflecting this eclecticism, papers at this year’s conference attended to disability in in varying guises, with stops along the way in film music (Neil Lerner’s discussion of “overcoming” in the 1945 film “Pride of the Marines”); jazz (Eduardo López-Dabdoub on the blind saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk and the performance of disability); musical theater; hip-hop (Elyse Marrero’s engaging presentation on ASL interpreters and Hip Hop); and New England psalmody (my own paper on music at the Perkins School for the Blind).

A special seminar on disability and musical theater opened the door to a rich new potential area for further research. Organized by James Leve (Northern Arizona University), the seminar format included several long-established scholars who—in an important step forward for our subfield—contributed position papers about disability for the first time. Paul Laird (University of Kansas) provided a compelling critique of Nessarose and Elphaba, the two disabled female characters in Stephen Schwartz’s musical Wicked; Raymond Knapp (UCLA) reflected on a symposium he organized on Deaf West [link: Theatre’s production of Big River; Lauren Acton (York University) discussed representations of mental illness at the 2014 Stratford Festival in Canada; Steve Swayne (Dartmouth) explored Lucy Barker’s poisoning in Sweeney Todd; Last but not least, James Leve discussed Charlie and Algernon, a 1970s-era musical in which the title character Charlie (a man with down syndrome) is juxtaposed troublingly with Algernon (a laboratory mouse).

In an extended conversation period that followed the papers, several discussants encouraged the presenters to consider critiques raised within disability studies: what role (or lack thereof) do disability activists and actors play in theatrical representations of disability? To what extent do musical theater narratives, like literary narratives, function as a form of prosthesis? Finally, how can scholars, activists, and audiences use musical theater to imagine an inclusive future with disabled people rather than an ableist future without them?

The conversation sparked by these questions is still “emerging” for music theater scholars (let’s not shed the label just yet!). Nevertheless, musicals—Broadway, fringe, regional, and otherwise—have the promise to enliven and inform critiques of staged representations of disability for years to come.

Guest Post by Meghan Schrader, announcing the newly-formed Society for Disability Studies Interest Group on Disability and Music

Meghan Schrader received her M.A. in Music at the University of New Hampshire, and is the author of an article in the forthcoming collection Anxiety Muted: American Film Music in a Suburban Age, which will be published by Oxford University Press.

I am pleased to announce that the first meeting of the Society for Disability Studies music interest group was held recently at the national Conference of Disability Studies. The group was conceived around the original concept of musicology, described by Joseph Kerman in Contemplating Music, as having ranged “from the history of Western music to the taxonomy of primitive music, as it was then called, from acoustics to aesthetics, and from harmony to counterpoint to piano pedagogy.”

I find this definition is useful for our purposes: scholars in disability studies approach music in a variety of ways. We may be professional musicologists, or we may teach or study fields outside of music, such as English or Philosophy. In contrast to the breadth of methodological approaches to the study of music and disability, music is a distinct discipline with particular genres, history, and cultural practices; which differ from other forms of human expression. Hence, my hope is to provide a forum for SDS attendees to discuss music within a broad musicological framework. I also hope that doing so might foster collaboration with scholars who are affiliated with the AMS and SMT Disability Study Groups, in hopes that our divergent experiences might enrich each other’s scholarship.

By drawing on the increasing body of work related to music and disability, this group will consider the following questions: How can our work best reflect the interdisciplinary nature of disability studies? How does and should such musicology intersect with related fields, such a film studies, sound studies, and identity studies? What is music’s potential to reify or subvert cultural conceptions of disabled people, performers, and composers? What can disability studies contribute to music pedagogy? How might these contributions add to or change 19th century standards of musicianship that currently determine the practice of music? Can the social critique which often accompanies the analysis of narrative music also be applied to interpretations of absolute music? How can the analysis of music be integrated with ethical issues encountered in Disability Studies? What has disability studies to teach musicology, and what does musicology have to contribute to disability studies? How do nuances within disability identity impact our respective experiences as scholars, and particularly within the musicology/disability studies communities?

Our first meeting attracted scholars from a variety of different backgrounds and research interests, including:

  • Presidential campaign music, opera on YouTube, and Freakery
  • Music performance and, deafness in music with a focus on Evelyn Glennie and Christine Sun Kim
  • Film music, particularly horror film soundtracks and film music of the 1950s
  • Elitisim in music education
  • Film music and studies of “The Beast with Five Fingers,” “Pride of Manres,” and Al Schidt and blindness
  • Studies of Porgy and Bess and contemporary music
  • Songwriting/performance with a focus on clinical psychology and metal music

We began the process of organizing one or more interdisciplinary panels for next year, in which we hope to bring these divergent interests together. True to the familial spirit of SDS, we also discussed the possibility of an “open mic night,” in which music scholars could not only meet for discussion, but also perform for each other.

We noted that SDS has had several music panels over the years, but that scholars who frequently attend SDS might be less likely to attend AMS, SAM or SMT meetings. Similarly, frequent participants in the latter conferences rarely attend SDS. Hence, another goal is to establish more frequent interactions and communication between scholars affiliated with these respective organizations. We would like to encourage these scholars to enrich both conferences with their presence and contributions.

Those wishing to participate in a panel should submit their abstracts to Meghan Schrader (meghanschrader at, Jessica Holmes (jessica.holmes at, and Dana Gorzelany-Mostak (dana.gorzelany-mostak at by December 3, 2014. The Society for Disability Studies Music Interest Group also has a Facebook presence.

Guest Post by Jeannette Di Bernardo Jones: “Encountering Deaf Spaces in Washington”

This is another installment of guest blog posts by scholars of music and disability studies. Jeannette Di Bernardo Jones is a graduate student and teaching assistant in musicology at Boston University, and is a contributor to the OUP Handbook on Music and Disability Studies (forthcoming 2014). Her master’s thesis, completed for degree requirements at Louisiana State University, is a study of The University of Pennsylvania MS. Codex 436.

“Mommy, guess what I want to do for my job?” “what?” “It starts with an M.” “music?” “yes, I want to do what that Deaf music guy does.”

My seven-year-old son and I were sitting in a cafe on a cold, rainy evening in February in Washington, D.C. having just come from the Kennedy Center. My son, Ellis, was beaming in the warm afterglow of seeing Signmark for the first time, the Deaf rapper from Finland. As a parent, I’ve taken my kids to concerts before, but this one was different. I was at the Signmark concert as a musicologist, taking notes for my own research, and I brought my son all the way from Boston to see this, because he’s Deaf, too.

In February 2013, Signmark performed at the Kennedy Center, representing Finland as one of the featured performers of the month-long Scandinavian festival at the Center, called “Nordic Cool.” Including Signmark in a cultural festival distances his work as a deaf artist from medical implications of deafness and shifts them more in a political and cultural light, which is consistent with Signmark’s artistic goals.

The audience rippled with the signing hands of Deaf and hearing people, communicating together, or simply waving their hands in applause. Signmark called from the stage, “Rhythm isn’t something we hear, but also see and feel,” as he encouraged the audience to move their hands and bodies along with the music.

Through the performance in a spoken language and a sign language, Signmark creates a musical experience that is accessible to both hearing and Deaf cultures. Signmark works closely with his partner, vocalist Brandon Bauer, who is Finnish-American and who performs the spoken translation of Signmark’s signed raps, to create a bilingual performance. Signmark states, “Through my music I want to break prejudice and fight for equality between cultures. I want to show to people that being different can be an asset. My message is that nothing is impossible for the deaf; we can do all the same things.”

I underestimated how much seeing Signmark would resonate with my seven-year-old. Ellis has a fair amount of auditory access through the use of a cochlear implant (CI), but he also signs. American Sign Language is his first language. During a bilingual concert, he could choose either modality listening with his CI or listening with his eyes. He chose the latter.

As the music started, Ellis took in the first few songs in his seat, but then as he latched on to Signmark’s performance, he became more engaged, waving his arms, and fist-pumping the air along with the music. The show is worked out between Deaf Signmark who signs and his colleague Brandon who speaks. They are well coordinated in the dialogue in-between songs, but sometimes there is some variance between how they are interacting with the audience. Ellis was completely tuned into Signmark. He responded to all the signing, and for the last song, when Signmark invited everyone to the front, Ellis ran up to the front to be closer, joining in, jumping up and down. When it was over, I said we could meet Signmark. My somewhat shy Ellis surprised me. He was frantic to meet him, running and pushing his way ahead to find Signmark. We were rewarded with this sweet picture.


At the age of seven, my son has not yet encountered the prejudice of the hearing world that deaf people can’t or don’t experience, enjoy, and perform music. After his encounter with Signmark, he will know that this is not the case, and he has taken to writing his own songs at home now.

But the Signmark concert was only a part of a journey I took with my Deaf son that weekend. My little Ellis became my Ellis Island, a portal to a world that I would’ve never known about if it weren’t for him, DEAF-WORLD, in ASL. And our trip to Washington, D.C., gave us a physical space for DEAF-WORLD. We stayed in the dorms at Gallaudet University, the only deaf liberal arts university in the world. To get to and from there, we took a special Gallaudet shuttle that runs from Union Station every half hour, which fascinated Ellis, “A Deaf bus!?” And he was eager to make small talk in ASL with every generous college student who made eye contact with him. Later, he remarked, “I think we should move to George Washington, D.C. Everyone is smart here; everyone is signing.”

The next day, I took him to see the monuments. Perhaps the most significant one for me to show him was the Lincoln Memorial. This memorial represents the struggle for minorities to gain equality and social justice in a majority world that would otherwise oppress them. We remember M. L. King, Jr. standing on the steps declaring his dream. But many don’t realize that King’s dream was echoed over twenty years later by the Deaf students in Washington, D.C., who borrowed banners from the civil rights movement to declare their own dream of having a Deaf president for the first time at Gallaudet University—which would symbolize the rejection of nearly two hundred years of paternalism perpetuated by hearing medical and educational professionals.

If you look closely at Abraham Lincoln’s hands, it is said that the sculptor, Daniel Chester French, who had a deaf son, formed the ASL letters “A” and “L” for “Abraham Lincoln.” Standing there with my deaf son, I felt proud that he could say to me just the night before, “I want to do what that Deaf music guy does.” To know that he stands on the shoulders of so many who have advocated for the rights of the deaf. And to know that as a musicologist, I have a role to play.

AL (did you know the statue was carved by a Deaf man?) #lincolnmemorial #washingtondc

Accessibility: Theoretical and Applied Approaches, by Kendra Preston Leonard

Kendra Preston Leonard’s essay on accessibility is the second installment of guest blog posts by scholars of music and disability studies. Kendra Preston Leonard is a musicologist and editor with interests in music and disability, women and music, and music and screen history. She is the Founder and Director of the Silent Film Sound and Music Archive.

At the several music and disability sessions and panels I’ve attended in the last couple of years at AMS, SMT, SAM, and SEM, I’ve been struck by the fact that a large number of scholars who attend these sessions are often foremost seeking guidance, suggestions, and observations on accessibility and other “applied” issues: how to improve learning outcomes for differently abled students. While many of these instructors stay and become interested in the more theoretical work we do in examining the construction and portrayal of disability in music, their initial concerns tend to be centered on practical questions of pedagogy and disability, or, for advanced students, conferences attendance and disability.  Much of our work is informed by theoretical aspects of , even if we never quite term it as such.It became clear to me  in observing these scholars and their interests, as well as in dialogue with my colleagues in music and disability studies, that we (as individuals, as a Study Group, and in terms of our societies) could be doing much more to improve applied accessibility. Therefore, I’m very pleased to say that I’ll be chairing a new subcommittee of the Music and Disability Study Group, the Ad Hoc Committee on accessibility. This committee will meet for the first time at AMS, with the following goals: evaluation of the current AMS Guidelines on accessibility, reviewing comments in post-conference surveys on accessibility issues, monitoring accessibility issues at the Pittsburgh meeting;, and surveying members of the Study Group about accessibility concerns. I hope that everyone reading will include their comments on accessibility in the post-conference survey that will follow the 2013 meeting, and encourage their colleagues and students—even those without a scholarly or personal stake in our subfield—to do the same. Our questions are crucial ones, and will enable the Study Group to be more aware of the kinds of issues those with disabilities face when attending national meetings or interacting with our societies. Additionally, the Study Group surveys will help make recommendations for future meetings and guide future policies on accessibility for the AMS and other academic societies.

We are making strides in applied accessibility issues. Shortly after receiving word that the panel I had organized with James Deaville, Stephanie Jenson-Moulton, and Jeannette Jones,  “Music and Disability on Screen” (Thursday, 8:00 p.m., Rivers Room), had been accepted for this year’s AMS meeting, I began to make inquiries at the national office as to what it would take to have the session recorded. I volunteered that I would later transcribe it so that both audio-video and text-based forms could be posted online in order to provide accessibility to the session’s contents for those interested. I figured that perhaps this session, and my unrelenting stream of emails, might bring the AMS somewhat more into line with the accessibility initiatives that its sister societies were already putting into place. After all, SEM was able to negotiate a special deal with Indiana Conferences to stream the majority of its sessions at the three-society meeting in 2012, which increased the accessibility scholars had to those sessions; and this year SMT not only has a session on “Universal Design in the Music Theory and Aural Skills Classrooms” (Friday 8-11 p.m., Harris Room), which is all about accessibility, but is also live-streaming and archiving a limited number of 2013 conference sessions. I was delighted that the AMS agreed to buy a digital recorder for use in my session this year, and, I hope for use in future sessions.

The AMS did have two other concerns: those of copyright infractions and the rights of participants in the session. We therefore agreed that I would edit out the screen clips presenters will use to avoid any copyright problems, and that we will announce at the beginning of the session that recording will be taking place and that any attendees not wanting to appear should notify me so that I can remove any footage of them from the final video.

In general, I found that the AMS is somewhat behind in its initiatives and commitment to addressing accessibility issues in comparison to SMT and SEM. The mission of the Ad Hoc Committee on accessibility is not just a fact-finding one, but also one in which we are hoping to provide the AMS’s officers and board members with a thorough understanding of how much accessibility issues curtail the ability of members to attend and participate. I look forward to hearing from readers of this blog as to their concerns and suggestions for the Ad Hoc Committee on Accessibility.

Nineteenth-Century Perspectives on Deafness and Music: An Introduction, by Anabel Maler

Anabel Maler’s essay on nineteenth-century American deafness and music is the first installment in a series of blog posts written by members of the disability and music scholarly community. Anabel Maler is a PhD student in Music Theory at the University of Chicago, and a member of the Society for Music Theory Interest Group in Music and Disability. If you are interested in writing a blog entry, please contact Samantha Bassler, the Social Media Officer, at samanthaebp at .

When the topic of my research comes up in conversation, I always pay careful attention to peoples’ reactions when I describe my work on music, deafness, and sign language. Some react with pleasant surprise and excitement at what is perceived to be an unusual area of interest.

Others express their skepticism about whether the deaf can really experience music, or create it through sign language. Of course, possibly the most common reaction of all is to make a reference to this scene from Mr. Holland’s Opus:

The second reaction is the one that interests me right now, because although many people have responded to my projects with skepticism, this reaction still manages to take me by surprise. The concept that deaf people cannot experience music, or can only experience it through technological intervention, is one that seems ingrained in our culture, and that usually goes unquestioned. For my next research project, I decided to go back to the nineteenth century to try to find the roots of our attitudes towards deafness and music. My questions about the historical relationship of music and deafness has led to many hours perusing issues of nineteenth-century American journals on deaf education, and I would like to present some of my findings here. First, though, a brief explanation of nineteenth-century American views on deafness and education is in order.

There were two main methods of deaf education in nineteenth-century America: in one corner, the manualists, and in the other corner, the oralists. In 1817, Reverend Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet founded the first school for deaf students in the United States: the American Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb in Hartford, Connecticut. The school’s head teacher was the deaf Parisian schoolteacher Laurent Clerc, who used sign language to instruct his students at the American Asylum. This manner of instructing deaf students was known as the manual method. For the first half of the nineteenth century, the manual method flourished in America, led by Gallaudet’s son, Edward Miner Gallaudet.

By the mid-nineteenth century, another method of deaf education entered the American consciousness: the oral method, led by Alexander Graham Bell. Proponents of the oral method forbade the use of sign language in their classrooms, instead focusing all of their attention on teaching speech and lip-reading. Deaf Americans thus found themselves at the center of a heated debate in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

You may know Bell as the inventor of the telephone, but there are a couple of other things to know about A.G.:

  1. He was a supporter and practitioner of the oralist method of deaf education.

  2. He was also a supporter of the eugenicist movement, although presumably he wasn’t a practitioner of that one (I hope). Alarmed by the tendency of the deaf to intermarry, Bell feared that allowing the deaf to continue forming communities that communicated via sign language would lead to the formation of a “deaf race.”

While manualist instructors were concerned with the moral and religious education of the children in their care, oralists were mostly interested in assimilating deaf people into hearing society. These views were reflected in how the two types of educators thought about music in relation to deafness. For example, in 1848 W.W. Turner wrote the following in a manualist publication:

“If the question be raised, ‘Cui bono?’—what possible benefit can result from teaching music to the deaf or from exercising them in musical performances when learned?—it may be answered: What benefit is ever derived from teaching music? It is a source of intellectual gratification. It is a means of intellectual cultivation.”

Oralists, by contrast, viewed music as completely absent from the lives of the deaf before technological intervention. Let’s look at a quote from an article called “Music for the Deaf and Dumb,” published in 1897:

“With the aid of Professor McKendrick’s invention deaf persons can attend the opera and occupy their boxes in any part of the house, however remote. They can dress as others dress, converse as others converse, do as others do, with nothing conspicuous about them, differing thus from other deaf process treatment. […] This applies to all deaf people and especially to the deaf and dumb who will, for the first time, enjoy musical rhythm and hear the notes of human warblers.”

Unlike manualists, oralists were not concerned with how the deaf could experience music on their own terms; rather, they wanted the deaf to experience music as hearing people did through technological innovations, in order to assimilate them into the hearing world. They saw this experience as the “first time” that the deaf were able to enjoy music, although it is clear from manualist publications that the deaf had been experiencing and enjoying music in other ways for many decades prior.

As the nineteenth century progressed, the oralist movement gained immense popularity and experienced several important victories, like the Milan Congress of 1880, the suppression of sign language such that by 1920 only 20 percent of deaf students were taught using sign, and the near-total purging of deaf teachers from schools for the deaf. At the same time, technological advancements made the oralists’ dream, for the deaf to experience music in the same way as the hearing, seem like it could become a reality. In 1883, A.G. Bell published his famous lecture on the formation of a deaf race, which fed into the public’s fear of a race seemingly without sound or music.

Although we have ceased to fear the development of a deaf race, and although sign language experienced a major comeback when it was finally recognized as a natural language, our present day views on deafness and music remain pretty much the same as they were in the late nineteenth century. While articles on music therapy and cochlear implants abound, scholarly articles on the deaf experience of music are rare, and as such, the history of music in Deaf culture remains a mystery. My hope is that researching music and deaf education in the nineteenth century will help fill some of the gaps in our knowledge, and eventually bring our understanding of music and deafness into the twenty-first century.