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First orchestra for disabled people a ‘game-changer’ for teaching music

Le Chéile will bring together children with physical and intellectual disabilities

Royal Irish Academy of Music student Maria Rojas and Milo O’Brien (7), a participant in Le Chéile, at the launch of Ireland’s first national orchestra for disabled musicians. Photograph: Alan Betson

Orchestras have always been associated with the musical elite. It would have been inconceivable a generation ago that somebody with an intellectual disability or a physical disability inhibiting fine motor skills would be able to participate in one.

Le Chéile, an initiative of the Creative Ireland programme and the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM), will change that.

The Open Youth Orchestra of Ireland will be the first in the country exclusively made up of musicians with disabilities. It will also be a cross-Border orchestra drawing members from the four provinces separately, before coming together as a full orchestra in Athlone in September.

The musicians will spend a week playing together, with the goal of being able to perform together in a concert to be announced at a later date.

An open orchestra is one where ability is not a limiting factor. Those who will participate will include musicians with Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy.

The orchestra will use a technique devised by Dr Denise White of Ulster University called “conductology” which will rely on the use of 18 gestures agreed upon by all the musicians.

RIAM director Deborah Kelleher described it is a “fascinating time” in the development of music for people with disabilities.

“I can’t get over what a game-changer this is. For the academy we have been teaching and examining over a million people since we were founded. The opportunity to extend new invitations to teach people with different abilities would have been barred to us before, but there is no stopping us now.

“I can’t wait to see what the next generation of musicians are going to look like. They are not going to look like they were in the past.”

The orchestra will create its own music. “They are not going to be creating a Strauss waltz. It will be a mixture of composed and improvised,” said Ms Kelleher. “They are going to be creating contemporary music. Some times it might sound hip hop, other times it might sound really edgy.”

Mobile phones

Adaptive music technology (AMT) uses tablets, iPads and mobile phones to create music. It is a technology well suited to children who otherwise would not be able to learn a conventional instrument.

The orchestra will be made up of musicians playing conventional instruments and those using new technology.

One of those benefiting from the new technology is Milo O’Brien (7), a child with Down syndrome, who stole the show at the launch at the RIAM. He comes from a family of musicians. His grandfather and uncle are both full-time musicians.

“For kids like Milo it was assumed that he is not able or it is too challenging for him,” his mother Jan Glover said. “This kind of technology where he can get the same result as from an instrument is really a big thing. There are all sorts of children who will benefit from this.”

Le Chéile is only open to children between the ages of 16 and 30, so Milo is too young at present. He may just have a few years to wait, though, as the plan is for Le Chéile to be an annual project.