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Electric dreams: Meet the musicians breaking barriers

Innovative software has made performing and composing possible for people with disabilities, giving them a vital lifeline. Celine Naughton reports


Tuned in: Shaun Healy rehearsing with the NonZeroSum Ensemble. Photo: Stephen Latimer

Tuned in: Shaun Healy rehearsing with the NonZeroSum Ensemble. Photo: Stephen Latimer

Tuned in: Shaun Healy rehearsing with the NonZeroSum Ensemble. Photo: Stephen Latimer

Famous musicians with disabilities are few and far between. A handful such as Stevie Wonder, Andrea Bocelli and the late Ian Dury spring to mind, but that's about to change as modern technology enables unsung artists to overcome a host of physical, intellectual and other challenges and take their rightful place in the musical narrative.

Among them is an extraordinary musician from Cork, 27-year-old Cillian McSweeney, who has triumphed over the challenges of profound cerebral palsy to release his first EP this year, aptly titled Unique. Confined to a wheelchair, with limited movement and no speech, Cillian uses software such as Eye Gaze and E-scape to compose music, write lyrics and perform with his band, Circles.

"I always wanted a career in music, but I knew the road ahead wouldn't be an easy one," he says. "I want to be known as a musician who happens to have a disability, not a disabled musician."

In 2010, Cillian wrote to Dr Gráinne McHale, director of SoundOUT, a Cork-based community organisation that provides music-making and performing opportunities for young people with and without disabilities.

"I told her I wanted to do five things: write my own songs, play my own music, be in a band, get a music qualification and have a career in music," he says. "Seven years on, I have ticked four of those boxes and I'm working on the last one."

Dr McHale remembers the letter well. "I said okay, let's tackle your goals one at a time," she says. "And look what he's achieved in seven years. Cillian has forged a path for musicians worldwide. He's an inspiration. He was our first participant in SoundOUT and now we have over 300 people in the programme.


Cillian McSweeney performs with his band Circles

Cillian McSweeney performs with his band Circles

Cillian McSweeney performs with his band Circles

"Cillian is a prime example of the transformative effect music can have on people's lives. For 20 years, he could only watch the world around him. 'Locked In,' one of three songs on his EP, includes the line: 'Unlock these doors, smash down these walls, break down these fences, let me be free.'

"Music has given Cillian a way out of his locked-in existence. He's no longer watching the world go by, he's an active participant, doing what he's always wanted to do. Without music, he'd never have had the opportunity to achieve anything like this."

She says there's never been a more exciting time for making music more inclusive. Initiatives such as Music Generation, set up by U2 to make music education available to all children, have been very supportive in providing funding for an outreach schools programme, and for individual musicians like Cillian.

"In SoundOUT we share what we do with communities and organisations nationwide," she says. "We also have connections with people in the Netherlands, Norway and the US. We're pushing boundaries and collaborating around the globe to make sure that everybody gets an equal chance to express themselves through music. It's a strong international community as well as a local one."


The NonZeroSum Ensemble from Derry

The NonZeroSum Ensemble from Derry

The NonZeroSum Ensemble from Derry

Similar initiatives elsewhere in Ireland are also making their mark on the world stage. Following a successful concert in London last month, a Derry-based group called the NonZeroSum Ensemble made up of young musicians with and without disabilities, will perform at UCD this evening and in Portugal in January.

It's a dream come true for 37-year-old David Meenan, whose difficulties with Global Developmental Delay led him to self-harm. "I didn't have the best start in life, but music has made me a stronger, better person," he says. "I feel powerful and confident, I believe in myself and I've made friends who believe in me. For anybody who might be in the same boat that I was in, I want them to know that it is possible to have a brighter future. If I can transform my life, anyone can. Music means everything to me."

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Also performing tomorrow is 30-year-old John Lynch, whose Asperger's Syndrome used to render day-to-day conversation a struggle, but today he speaks clearly and confidently.

"I had problems with pronunciation, but in the past two years since I started playing music with touch pads, I hear sounds in a new way," says John. "People love our performance, and that is the beauty of it. Audiences go 'wow', and think how amazing we are!

"When we did the gig in London, a documentary crew turned up and interviewed me. Me giving an interview? That wouldn't have happened two years ago." Another player with NonZeroSum, Shaun Healy (23) is an ambassador for people with intellectual disabilities and is very vocal about the impact of music on overcoming adversity.

"I found it desperately hard to communicate with people, but this journey brought me out of my shell," he says. "Music is like heaven to me. I'm learning to play piano, cello and saxophone, and when I'm not playing, I like to listen to classical music. It helps me relax and focus. Music is life-changing. I want the world to know and I want to help others."

NonZeroSum Ensemble comprises two musical groups - Acoustronic, a group of musicians with disabilities, and the Benyounes String Quartet. Led by Professor Frank Lyons, Acoustronic rehearses every week with post-grad students from the University of Ulster, composing and playing music like you've never heard before.

"The effects of music on these people's lives is extraordinary," says Professor Lyons. "We see people who couldn't speak two years ago stand up in front of an ensemble and improvise on the spot."

He calls the pioneering project "Inclusive Creativity" - a perfect term, he says, for what happens at the weekly rehearsals.

"There is no hierarchy here. We have musicians in attendance who can guide the process, but we don't prescribe what happens. We allow it to unfold in a non-organic way. This is a collective of people who have amazing artistic ability and we give them a framework to express themselves.

"Stylistically, it is a diverse blend of people with interests in pop, jazz and other kinds of music, and they're constantly challenging themselves. They create dark and light sounds, and what astonishes audiences is the complexity of the thought processes, and the improvisation involved.

"When people hear the music for themselves, their perceptions of those with disabilities and special needs is brought to a whole new level. This is excellent, high quality work, which has been marginalised for far too long."

Workshop leader and music teacher Denise White worked with her students in Acoustronic to develop a system of gestures which enable them to play as an ensemble.

"They took the lead," she says. "They are my co-creators in developing the gestural system. It's not about me telling them what, when and how to play. They have developed the skills to create their own music and that's really empowering. These artists challenge themselves to perform top quality music that's on a par with the work of professional musicians. The progress they've made musically is amazing, but the benefits go beyond technical skills. This programme transforms lives, simple as that."

The NonZeroSum Ensemble will perform as part of the Virtual Systems and Multi-Media Conference at UCD at 6.30pm this evening, Rendezvous 2, Belfield Campus. For further information on SoundOUT, visit soundout.ie.

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