I am excited to introduce my first guest writer, David Nabb. He is a Professor of Music at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Born and raised in Iowa, he holds both B.M. and M.M. degrees in Multiple Woodwind Performance from Indiana University, and Ph.D. in Music Education from the University of North Texas.
Since surviving a catastrophic stroke 2000, David has worked with Jeff Stelling to develop a saxophone that can be played with the right hand only. Nabb has demonstrated his toggle-key saxophone throughout the world, and is often asked to speak and write about music for persons with disabilities. The following post highlights several musicians with disabilities whose deep passion for music helped them find a way to perform.
Lessons from Musicians with Disabilities
Each time I read the lines above, I am reminded not of the blood lust to which Virgil intended, but of the mysterious passion for music making that so many humans experience. My mind is led in this direction because of the irrational, mysterious, and ubiquitous nature of musical desire. As a musician, for me it is natural to associate Virgil’s “fire in men’s hearts” with the desire to make music. Take a journey down the rabbit hole of musical desire through some mystifying examples of irrational musical passion that both inspire and confound.
Begin with Ludwig van Beethoven, born in 1770. Today Beethoven’s music retains the power to move millions of souls to rapture, hopelessness, laughter or tears, and this is more than 200 years after the music was created. Countless of our greatest musical minds have held Beethoven’s music with deep fascination, including Franz Schubert, Leonard Bernstein, Wynton Marsalis, and Herbert von Karajan. Beethoven has the rare distinction of having earned a place in American popular culture, quite uncommon for a Classical music composer. Even today, everyone recognizes his name. Schroeder, the piano player in the Peanuts gang, may have played a role in this. My own fascination with Ludwig van Beethoven began when I first studied Beethoven’s music, and for about 15 years I had a five-foot-tall poster of Beethoven’s likeness in my bedroom. My poster gradually became scratched, worn, and faded over the years, but my admiration for the music has never faded. It has grown over time.
Consider the fact that Beethoven wrote most of his greatest works when he was deaf. As a young adult, Beethoven was the victim of a mysterious malady that took his hearing when he was about 30 years old. The great majority of his most important works were written after the onset of his deafness. In fact, Beethoven never actually heard many his own musical works that still speak so many of us.
When trying to understand Beethoven’s example, the best we can do is to use the available information of how people, particularly people with disabilities, interact with music. A look at some contemporary musicians with disabilities will illustrate my ultimate argument best. Take a moment to read through the following factual accounts.
A compelling scene from 2016 remains vivid in my own memory. A small recital hall at Cincinnati’s Xavier University contained about 50 seats, the air stirred with excited voices. On a small stage at the front of the stage a cello rested horizontally in a specialized cello stand. Few cellists or experienced music aficionados would recognize the stand supporting the cello in a way that allows access to the strings and the fingerboard without distorting its tone or resonance.
A young woman enters a stage. She places herself on a tall stool facing the cello and speaks to the audience, “Hi, my name is Inga, and I’m going to play ‘The Swan’ by Saint-Saens” (Nabb, 2017).
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