Can music teachers improve access to cultural life?

Equality in the arts means equal access across the board – to venues, to decision-making, to training and making an artistic contribution. A new program at the University of Melbourne is tackling the latter – ensuring those with disabilities get the same excellence in music training as everyone else so they can make a contribution.

music teacher passing a guitar to students

If participation in cultural life is vital to individual and community wellbeing, we need to work to ensure the cultural life of our community is truly accessible for all.

There are some great initiatives making this a reality – from making venues physically accessible and sensory friendly, to upskilling venue staff to support communication accessible events. But there is still a way to go to achieve full inclusion. And it requires looking not only at audience participation, but who is on stage too; and not just for those with physical disabilities, but also for those with communication, sensory and intellectual disabilities.

Senior lecturer, researcher and registered music therapist Dr Grace Thompson and Professorial Fellow in Disability and Inclusion, Professor Keith McVilly at the University of Melbourne suggest a benchmark of successful inclusion in cultural life will be when “our events are representative of the wider community, both on and off stage.”

We are all part of the solution. But those involved in the arts have a key role to play. “There is a challenge out there for those of us involved in cultural spaces about making sure they are representative of the wider space. Whether that’s a classroom, a studio, gig space or institution,” says Professor McVilly.

“When we turn up and look around the room, at who's in the cast, who's in the studio, we need to be asking ourselves those questions.”

If our performance spaces and performances are not representative of the wider community, the task is to address the barriers that might be leading to certain people not being part of the space.

Venues could provide more information online about accessibility so people feel confident about turning up and getting in, and that their support needs will be met; staff could be upskilled to use electronic communications boards for those that use them; all of this could be put front and centre in the marketing, before the mainstream, to normalise disability in the arts, says Professor McVilly.

All of these things make participating in the full spectrum of cultural life more feasible.

For Dr Thompson, it was in the classroom where she saw the barrier to participation: “When working as a music therapist, this phenomenon started to happen where parents would say, ‘my child's doing really well, I think they're ready for music lessons. Who can you send me to’?

“Because when they tried to find a music teacher, they’d experienced a hesitant attitude. Or they’d found that the teacher, though positive, just wasn't able to structure the lesson in a way that was accessible for their child.”

“The story played out too many times and I couldn't ignore it any longer. I thought, we really need to address this gap.” And so, the Specialist Certificate in Inclusive Music Teaching was born.

The need was for professional development and upskilling, for excellent music teachers providing one-on-one or small group lessons for people with disability in the community.

“To my knowledge, we don't have anything like it in Australia,” says Dr Thompson, who coordinates the program. “The closest model we have is at a very prestigious music institution in the United States called Berklee College of Music. It doesn’t have a therapy focus, but focuses on upskilling music teachers to provide high quality music lessons to children and young people with disability.”

Taking inspiration from this, the course at Melbourne aims to equip music teachers with the skills and confidence to teach to a diverse range of learners, including those on the autism spectrum and/or intellectual disability.

Drawing on contemporary theory from music pedagogy, special education, and music therapy, participants learn the underpinning theory needed to teach diverse learners, as well as gain the practical skills to put it into practice.

In an effort to shift bias in the wider community around excellence, and who is capable of it, the program also encourages high expectations of students with disability. “I want these teachers to really expect great things from their students and gain an appreciation that these students can achieve music excellence.”

Professor McVilly agrees with the sentiment: "people with disability aren't always looking for specialist music therapists. They're looking for excellent music teachers who understand their communication support needs and their learning support needs, and who can adapt what is excellent music training to a more individualised and accessible approach.”

In the campaign to achieve equal access to cultural life, the Specialist Certificate makes a significant and unique contribution. Not through making something just physically accessible, but through enabling access to knowledge and skills.

As Professor McVilly puts it: “We've deinstitutionalised people with disabilities. But a lot of the knowledge and skills for working and supporting people with disabilities has remained institutionalised, confined to a small cohort of people. This course unlocks that knowledge and specialist expertise and makes it available to a much broader group of practitioners.”

And if music teachers have the “knowledge, skills, understanding, and willingness” to work with these students, it means a wider group of students in classrooms, a wider group of performers on stage, and consequently a more accurate representation of society in our cultural spaces.

On top of helping those with disabilities fully access music and benefit from all it has to offer, Dr Thompson reminds us that the arts as a whole is also enriched.

“If we don't have music teachers with the skills to work with students with disability, we're potentially really missing out in the future. We're never going to see performers on stage unless we've got music students in the classroom.”

Find out more and apply now for the Specialist Certificate in Inclusive Music Teaching

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