Classical music is known for dealing with the social climate of the period it was written in- Beethoven wrote about the fall of Napoleon, Strauss wrote about the destruction of World War II, and Shostakovich wrote about his struggles in the Soviet Union. In the present day, there are all kinds of social climates to write about, and many contemporary composers publish works about issues of social justice. Some of these works are argumentative, but others, such as music by Molly Joyce, seek to reframe stigma in a modern and accessible light.
At the age of 7, Joyce was involved in a car accident which permanently damaged her left hand. Despite her disability, she continued finding ways to adapt musical instruments to her physical needs. She played the fingerboard of the cello with her right hand rather than her left, and she learned how to play the trumpet, which is operated primarily by the right hand. In 2011, she discovered an electric organ, which she found was “made for [her] form and made for [her] deform.” With this instrument she has composed numerous works centering around disability.
Her desire to make music adaptable led her to do an independent study on the impact of disability on the arts. She found that disability is not something that prevents the arts from happening; rather, it is a unique palette of material to work with. Joyce discovered that her own disability produced a distinct sound using both her disabled hand and her uninjured hand while she played, and now she has numerous published works and commissions.
The reframing of disability as a diverse tool rather than something that hinders action is a relatively new phenomenon, but it is sweeping education and the workplace. America has predominantly been occupied with the “disability paradigm,” which is the mindset that disabled individuals have inherent weaknesses that cannot be remedied, rendering them as a separate sect of society in need of assistance. People like Joyce, however, argue against this paradigm with the social model of disability, which states that disabled people are only such because of the limitations put into place by society. Joyce proves the social model in her music; her disability did not end her musical career. Through unconventional, but extremely accessible adaptations, she was able to continue playing and composing.
Joyce’s take on music is representative of the music of the future. Educators around the world are trying to bring music to those who physically could not participate in the past, or those who couldn’t afford to. It is becoming more acceptable for music to be suited to the needs of individuals rather than sticking to tradition. With composers like Joyce paving the way, soon everyone in some way will be able to partake in the joy of making music.
Honeybourne, V. (2018). The Neurodiverse Classroom A Teachers' Guide to Individual Learning Needs and How to Meet Them. London: Jessica Kingsley.
NYU Steinhardt (2020). Molly Joyce. Retrieved 18 August 2020
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