Breaking new ground with BSO Resound
9 August 2018
Musicians James Rose and Charlotte Bott are members of BSO Resound, a brilliant disabled-led ensemble performing at the BBC Proms.
We find out how technology is changing the landscape for disabled musicians, and look ahead to their first major public performances.
Introducing James Rose
James Rose, 33, hails from Somerset and lives in London. The young conductor worked with Drake Music, a national arts charity aiming to expand access to music for disabled people.
Together they fashioned a head baton: a simple device attached to his glasses that holds a conductor’s baton.
This enables him to use small movements of the head to conduct players with great precision.
James, who uses an electric wheelchair and has cerebral palsy, recalls an early musical memory.
‘Around the age of eight or nine, when I wanted to type on a computer, I got my first head pointer device.
‘I used to bob my head along to a piece of music. Back then it was a well-played Andrew Lloyd Webber cassette.’
James now conducts and curates BSO Resound, a new professional ensemble of six disabled musicians and two composers founded this year by Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO). This month, the ensemble will perform at the BBC Relaxed Prom.
Introducing Charlotte Bott
She plays the Linnstrument, designed by digital instrument impresario Roger Linn. Musicians play notes by touching a screen and they can vary the sound of each note while playing live, creating a very expressive performance.
Charlotte played the piano at a young age. During her teens, an accident led to a physical impairment. Charlotte also uses an electric wheelchair full-time.
Charlotte’s musical journey restarted when she realised there were still ways to express her musical talent. Initially she had very little mobility. Drake Music provided a solution, developing a complex system of switches which meant Charlotte could choose the notes she wanted to play.
At the age of 16, she played the prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 using just tiny movements of her head and thumbs.
The video of this performance attracted a BBC radio documentary, and Charlotte’s remarkable achievement reignited her passion for music.
She joined the British Paraorchestra, performing with the Coldplay at the closing ceremony of the Paralympics at London 2012. A new setup devised with Doug Bott from Drake Music enabled her to play.
Now, with more mobility in her hands, the new Linnstrument is perfect for Charlotte.
Performing at the proms
Then, on Monday 27 August, they will all perform in the BBC Relaxed Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
The Relaxed Prom is the second event of its kind at Britain’s world famous classical music festival. It offers a more informal environment for everyone to enjoy orchestral music, including people on the autistic spectrum and people with learning disabilities, as well as people with sensory impairments.
James says he can still hardly believe he will be performing at such prestigious events:
‘I still don’t think I’ve actually got my head around it because I’ve been so busy getting ready for it all. It’s crazy. Unbelievable.’
Charlotte sums up how she felt when she found out about the performances:
‘Terrified, but excited. I think it’s the buzz you get from playing — that’s really exciting. And the way it bonds everyone on stage — the group feeling it produces.
‘Both performances will be a big achievement for me.’
Technology helping to break down barriers
It hasn’t always been plain sailing. At one stage, neither of them knew if they would have the chance to perform at all.
‘I have had a longstanding desire to play music live from a young age. But for ages, conducting remained a fantasy which I would often visit but never tell anyone about.
‘When I first started looking into conducting, I got a lot of sympathetic smiles and patronising responses.
‘Then I performed in ceremonies at London 2012. Afterwards, I began experimenting with different types of head pointers for conducting.
‘In 2015 I got my current set up, working with Drake Music.’
‘I wanted to play music when I was quite young but there just wasn’t the option.
‘The changing picture of technology helped me to overcome some of the barriers. It’s allowed me the opportunity to play and develop performance skills, develop musicianship.
‘Right now I have the Linnstrument, which I connect to a computer that holds sample sounds.
‘The keyboard is made of silicon and underneath there are sensors. It’s incredibly expressive in different ways.’
Not always accepted
Charlotte tells us more about the challenges for disabled musicians who want to pursue music as a professional career.
‘At school, I couldn’t get grades or do assessments or anything because none of the traditional bodies accepted my way of playing.
‘I went to college and did a music technology course. But it quickly became obvious that music wasn’t a route I would be able to take long-term.
‘Most universities ask for grade eight, and I just didn’t have it. I didn’t even have a particular instrument at the time.’
After a spell with the British Paraorchestra, Charlotte had to face a difficult reality: she liked the occasional performances, but she needed to look at careers outside of music to get regular work. So she took a Masters degree in social work, and is now a social worker.
Massive learning curve
When she came across the Linnstrument, she discovered a portable instrument she could learn quickly. Both James and Charlotte now use a tablet or computer to read sheet music — sometimes referred to as a ‘score’.
Applying for the new BSO Resound ensemble, Charlotte says she knew it would be a ‘massive learning curve’ — especially for someone who played and wrote music mainly through improvisation.
‘For the auditions I started learning to read music quite rapidly. I’ve never played pieces from a score before — it’s a whole new thing!’
Pro-active and open-minded
Both musicians are quick to praise the BSO for their inclusive stance.
‘If everyone experienced the same attitude we encounter with the BSO it would be amazing because the BSO are really proactive and open-minded.’
‘The BSO has been so supportive. It’s also opening up other people’s minds to the different ways that music can be played.
‘There are orchestras, and people in general, that aren’t so forward-thinking. There are presumptions that can be made as soon as someone sees someone with a visible impairment. And there are performance venues which aren’t necessarily accessible.
‘There is quite a long way to go. But then you only saw the odd female in orchestras 50 years ago.’
Both are enjoying the camaraderie of their musical journey.
James tells us:
‘It’s been great getting to know each other inside and outside of the rehearsals.
‘The other week when we were in Bournemouth at a meal, I realised how far we had come — and the way we are getting tighter, not just musically but as a group.
‘I did have a bit of an inside weep at that point.’
Making an impact
The members of BSO Resound are starting to realise the lasting effect of the ensemble.
This began to hit home after a series of small concerts – including performances at specialist schools for disabled students.
James tells us:
‘I am super pleased with the impact. I think it will inspire people who may not consider music in a professional capacity.
‘I also think we are showing other organisations that it’s possible to work with disabled people.’
Charlotte, too, feels excited about the difference that BSO Resound can make:
‘It could encourage other orchestras to include disabled people. I think the impact could be massive.’
Find out more
BSO Resound: the line-up
At their proms performances in Bournemouth and London, the ensemble will be conducted by James Rose and perform work by Alexander Campkin, BSO Resound Composer-in-Residence.
Alexander wrote pieces for all instrumentalists in the ensemble.
The musicians work alongside James, Alexander and BSO Resound Young Composer-in-Association, Lucy Hale.