Being a musician has given me a place to belong.
I was born with a disability and use a wheelchair. Playing my violin has given me an identity as a musician rather than just “the girl in the chair.”
Don’t get me wrong I am proud to be a woman with a disability, but having something to take me away from my reality for a little while is great too. My dream since high school was to be able to give other children and young adults with disabilities the same opportunities that I had, to learn music just for the sake of music.
In the Chicago area where I live I looked to see if there were programs in place for just that purpose and I came up with many places that offered music therapy and many places that offered choral programs to mostly people with developmental disabilities. Of course all of these places have their niche and are needed, but I was looking for something different. I play violin and was looking for places that offer opportunities for instrumentalists with disabilities to play together or learn to play not to further a therapy goal and not geared solely towards people with developmental disabilities, but something that would include everyone and allow them to play just for fun at whatever level they could and I found none.
Then someone I know pointed me in the direction of the Woodlands Foundation in Pennsylvania. I was able to get connected with the foundation and found out that they started a one week music camp called Notes from the Heart, with exactly the goals and visions I had hoped for. I contacted them and I got the most exciting opportunity of my life. I got my chance to go and teach at the camp last summer.
Teaching at this camp was probably the best experience of my life. My hope in going there was to observe and help out, to get ideas to start a similar program here in the Chicago area. That week I made connections for life. I got people on board to come to Chicago and help me. I was excited, my dream could become a reality.
Throughout the week I was more and more amazed by the openness and willingness of all the people on staff. Many places claim to allow everyone to participate and undoubtedly at least one child falls through the cracks. Not at the Woodlands. For the week there were 48 campers, about 24 counselors, and about 6 teachers including me. Every day for a week the kids rotated in groups between an ensemble class, a choir class, a music appreciation class. They also had concerts they attended. It was an overnight camp with accessible cabins. At the end of the week the kids put on a concert for their parents.
The campers ranged from age 8-22 with all different physical and cognitive abilities and all different stages of musical ability as well. Each child had their role in every aspect of the concert. A little girl who did not speak and did not move hardly at all tried many different instruments and finally was happiest with an egg shaker and they made it work. She was in the concert. Another kid, a boy with Downs Syndrome wanted to learn trumpet so they taught him just a couple notes and at the concert he added those few notes and was included and maybe one of the happiest kids there. Some of the campers had been taking music lessons previously and those campers got solos at concert time. No one was told they couldn’t accomplish something and everyone had a good time.
Growing up with a disability, having a place like the Woodlands, where the assumption of “you can’t” or “I can’t” is not in the vocabulary is important. Giving children or young adults a chance to try music if they want when people may have told them it’s impossible is the goal. I am in the very early planning stages with hopes of getting a music camp similar to the Woodlands off the ground here in Chicago in the near future. I am in the process of getting a group of people interested in helping out to brainstorm how to make my dream come true. If you are interested in helping me please let me know here. My hope is to give back to the two communities who made me who I am today, the disability community and the music community. Who knows maybe in the distant future my camp will grow so large that it becomes a year round music institute and that will be my career.