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Empowering children with disabilities through music

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The University of Melbourne has partnered with Melbourne Youth Orchestra (MYO) to implement a research program that prepares children with disabilities to pursue a future in mainstream music programs and ensembles.

Led by researcher Dr Anthea Skinner, who also lives with disability, the Adaptive Music Bridging Program gives young participants the opportunity to work with adaptive musical instruments that support their disability, while also connecting them to music teachers, engineers, and therapists to develop their musical knowledge and skills.

“Growing up, my parents taught me music and I became a musician at a young age, however I quickly noticed I was the only disabled kid in our school band, and I knew that other kids like me were missing out,” Dr Skinner said.

Alongside her research team, she found that the most significant barriers children with disability faced were music education and accessing teachers.

“Successful musicians don’t pick up their instrument for the first time when they’re hitting university, they need to pick it up right at the beginning, when children are thinking about whether or not they can play an instrument,” Dr Skinner said.

Launched in February 2023, the program currently supports eight students aged between 8 and 14, with the group meeting once a week to practice.

Tiana is one of the students participating in the program, who played the violin before having a stroke in 2022 where she lost all movement in her left side.

“We were worried that she would have to give up on her wish to play violin and piano with both hands again,” Tiana’s father, Vincent, said.

 

When we read about the program, it gave us hope that she might be able to get the help she needed and be able to continue to follow her dreams.

 

Through the program, Tiana’s violin has been adapted with reversed strings, so she is able to play using her right hand. She has also regained the confidence to play her piano in front of an audience.

“I wanted to start playing my instruments again and I want to inspire other kids with disabilities to not give up on their dreams – just keeping going,” Tiana said.

Her hard work and dedication has paid off since joining the group back in February, with Tiana recently being accepted to MYO's mainstream ensemble program after auditioning alongside two other students from the program in December. 

The group also made their public performance debut in December, joined by professional performers with disability.

Currently working through the waitlist to bring new students into the program in 2024, Dr Skinner is hoping to secure additional grant funding to equip music teachers in everyday classrooms across Australia with the skills and materials needed to support students with disability.

“I was lucky, I got to have an amazing music education – now I’m passing on the skills and providing that opportunity for others,” she said.

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