Paraorchestra’s live shows are perhaps naturally the most visible facet of our work.

Removing barriers that prevent musicians who identify as disabled from performing at the highest level is, and always will be, a huge part of what we do. But affecting change within the overall music sector means addressing things on a structural level.

This includes opening up new opportunities for Paraorchestra members to develop their artistic practice. In both informal discussions and through a survey of musicians conducted during lockdown, a clear desire and need arose for a resource for Paraorchestra members to explore composition.

Performers nowadays often utilize composing and arranging skills in the course of their work – for example, a musician who teaches may need to write music for a student, or a brass quintet player may need to arrange a tune for a specific line-up.

Enter Joining the Dots – a new online composition course facilitated by me – Paraorchestra’s Associate Music Director, Lloyd Coleman – and long-time Paraorchestra collaborator Liam Taylor-West.

Open to all Paraorchestra musicians who identify as disabled, Joining the Dots takes the form of six free weekly Zoom sessions (we’re currently on week four), each focusing on a different area of composition and arrangement: contemporary, classical, jazz, improvisation, writing for voice, generating and developing musical material, incorporating electronics and technology and reinventing existing material. Altogether there are seventeen musicians taking part in the course.

Screen shot of a Zoom call. Charotte Harding, a woman with long brown hair, gestures as she discusses a score displayed on the screen.

There is understandably a perception that there is a ‘right’ way to do composition, and that it’s a theory-intensive area that is taught in a very rigid, prescriptive way.

After just a few weeks it feels like we’ve put paid to this supposition, reminding everyone that a creative idea can be extrapolated and developed from almost any starting point.

It’s rare the modern composer uses only pencil and manuscript paper – there are now a whole suite of composing tools available, including music notation software (Sibelius, Dorico) or digital audio workstations (Logic, Ableton), and we’ve touched on these in the course too. Many composers – me included – first capture a moment of inspiration using a voice note app on their mobile phones.

Each week we are welcoming a different speaker or set of speakers from within Paraorchestra’s extended universe (many of them ensemble members) to talk about their practice and invite participants to use this as a jumping-off point for their own original creations.

Screen shot of a Zoom call – James Risdon, a man with short hair wearing a shirt and over-ear headphones, narrates over a clip of a musician playing a large bass recorder.

In week two, for example, we hosted Xia-Leon Sloane and Kevin Satizabal whose presentation took the form of a conversation about how they create musical ‘worlds’ in their compositions, touching on the specialist accessible tools available for composing by vision-impaired and blind composers. James Risdon also joined to talk to the group about writing for recorders – illustrating the huge range of instruments available and their many timbral possibilities.

Elsewhere, Oliver Vibrans and Liza Bec gave their perspectives on writing for theatrical contexts – a very different challenge compared to writing for the concert hall. And in our latest session we had a fascinating tour of writing for the voice with soprano Jo Roughton-Arnold, who demonstrated a number of approaches to setting text – conveying its meaning and emotion as clearly as possible.

After six weeks, participants in Joining the Dots will either have the opportunity to take part in an in-person composing session where they will be able to try out one of their own short compositions with a small group of musicians; or have a 1.1 mentoring session with a composer.

As a syllabus, we’re very proud of it. There is an unbelievable amount of collective talent, experience, and knowledge within Paraorchestra and being able to share it as peers, in such a warm and supportive environment, feels very special.

Change isn’t something that just happens. It requires collaboration, understanding, advocacy, money, resources, and a whole lot of collective will-power. Joining the Dots is just one part of our ambitious plan to expand Paraorchestra’s unique artist development programme that aims to empower more musicians who identify as D/deaf or disabled to become trailblazing artists and principal leaders of the sector.

Watch this space.