Music Classrooms as the Gateway to Access

by Katherine Lewis

Every musician deserves to make music in spaces designed for them to thrive. As the music industry is becoming increasingly aware of the need for accessibility for patrons and the talented musicians and staff that create, there’s one group uniquely positioned to usher in an age of accessible music-making: Teachers.

This article explores the ways music classrooms (public and private) provide a place of belonging for many musicians where other spaces fall short, and provide creative tools for educators of all kinds to serve as the beacon for music accessibility across the industry.To do so, we must first get clear on accessibility itself.

What is Accessibility?

The term ‘accessibility’ is used in a variety of ways by a number of communities. The most common describes whether a space, product, or experience can be properly accessed by Disabled individuals. A disability is “any physical or mental condition that substantially impairs/impacts one or more major life activities”. Access needs related to disability can be permanent, temporary, or fluctuate over time and space. So addressing barriers to access isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

To add a layer, accessibility is more than disability. It is an intersectional issue that requires us to examine a myriad of lived experiences and identities in our approaches.

As we begin to discuss solutions, there are six categories of intersectional access to keep in mind. 

  1. Physical
  2. Financial
  3. Institutional
  4. Attitudinal
  5. Communication
  6. Cultural

Music Classrooms As Opportunities

Music educators possess a variety of skills that make them well-equipped leaders in the quest for a more accessible and inclusive music industry. 

The first in creativity. Educators are incredible problem-solvers with a wealth of knowledge and tools at their disposal to meet their students’ individual needs.

Music teachers are also life-long learners who value the importance of continuing to learn equally as much as teaching. They often make every effort to develop more skills to better serve their students and develop their musical growth.

And most importantly, teachers are supportive. Music educators deeply believe in the potential their students possess to reach whatever goals they may have and become whatever they want – in and out of music spaces.

As it relates to accessibility in music, these skills are invaluable. Without keen problem-solving, a willingness to learn from others, and a fundamental belief that every musician is valuable, accessible music cannot exist. Creative problem-solving allows leaders to see access needs as an opportunity rather than obstacles. It instills in us the drive to find real, meaningful solutions. A learner’s spirit provides the ability to understand others’ lived experiences and shift our perception of what is possible.

But the most significant gift our educators can give is their fierce support of the budding musicians they guide. When musicians of all abilities and lived experiences have the full support of their most trusted mentors, they believe in themselves. They find a way to persevere, and become the future leaders of our craft. 

The Gap

So why is accessible music not more mainstream? There are a variety of contributing factors, but I’d like to shed light on a few of the more significant. 

Although music educators are some of the most equipped to improve accessibility in our industry, it is a subject most are rarely, if ever, taught. This leads to a number of barriers to action and change. Without a meaningful exposure to accessibility concepts and educational modalities, music educators lack the tools necessary to identify and address students’ access needs. Because of the knowledge gap, potential solutions are less readily available. And in classrooms that continue to face mounting pressure and dwindling resources, it is easier for students to slip through the cracks. 

While a lack of educational exposure is a notable gap, it is systemic factors that are most impactful. Longstanding societal ableism and other biases continue to shape the music industry and classrooms. Disabled students are frequently discouraged from taking music courses and often lack the accommodations to succeed. 

Luckily, things are beginning to change. If you are a music educator with a desire to teach more accessibly and help usher in an age of more inclusive music-making, the following tips can help.

Tips for Teaching Accessibly 

  1. Take a stand. Making a bold commitment to access and inclusion is a great first step. Either in your classroom or studio policy, adding both a DEI statement and accessibility notice lets students and caretakers know your expectations and that you are a safe learning space. You can find an example of each here.
  2. Get curious. With yourself, surroundings, and others. We all hold biases, or worldviews, based on our lived experiences. Examining the biases we hold allows us to develop more inclusive practices and engage with our students more effectively. Getting curious about the world and taking genuine interest in others empowers us to make better connections and find innovative solutions together.
  3. Communicate. Every person’s needs and learning styles are different. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, talk through it, and connect with your student(s) as human beings.
  4. Become a team. Students who feel empowered in their learning fare much better. Specifically students with access needs, teamwork is key. They are experts in their lived experience. You are there to facilitate their musical development. By encouraging them to openly share their experiences/needs, provide feedback, and make guided decisions along the way, you are better positioned to personalize the learning process and help them make more progress.
  5. Get creative. Access barriers require creative solutions. Embrace your learning spirit and approach teaching inquisitively. Rather than assume the reason your student(s) are having difficulty with a task or concept, ask them questions. You may be surprised by the answer. Do research to discover how their lived experience may impact their learning and search for resources that may already exist. And don’t be afraid to experiment together to find what works for them. Not only is it empowering for them, but it can be quite fun.
  6. Embrace tools. There are a growing number of innovative tools and strategies for making music accessible. From adaptive instruments and instrument alternatives to gamification, tech, and strategies, there are some really exciting things happening. I have created the first-ever comprehensive accessible music toolkit library to make accessing such tools easier for anyone in the music industry. You can access the list here.

Katherine Lewis

Access Reimagined | Instagram

Katherine is an active performer, clinician, and consultant throughout the United States. Katherine is a retired flutist in the United States Army, where she served as piccolo and associate principal flutist and the resident flutist for the Wind Quintet. She is former principal flutist for the Heartland Opera Company and has served as a substitute flutist for the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, Anchorage Opera, Arizona Wind Symphony, among others. Katherine has conducted accessibility training workshops with organizations of every size and has presented lectures at conferences, universities and public schools across the US in Missouri, Kansas, Arizona, Virginia, California, and Alaska, sharing her experiences to promote equity and inclusion in a variety of spaces.

After disability ended her military career, Katherine spent years seeking accessibility in the music industry and abroad, only to be frustrated and disappointed. Seeing a trend in others’ stories, Katherine decided to forge her own path and created Able Reimagined, an organization dedicated to supporting, educating, and empowering entrepreneurs to make a huge impact with their business through accessibility. She works with organizations of all sizes to build, market, and grow using access-centered principles, and trains leaders ready to take meaningful, impactful action.

Her passion and roots in music have continued as part of her mission as well. Katherine uses her personal experience with both visible and non-visible disabilities to educate and empower others to take action for a more equitable future for the music industry, particularly in education. After discovering instrument modification as a meaningful way forward for herself, Katherine dedicated herself to changing what it means to be ‘able’ as a working musician. Today she uses her experiences as a disabled performer and educator to help create a more equitable, inclusive, and accessible music industry and learning experience for all creatives. She has presented lectures and training with the National Flute Association and numerous private studios. 

Her work with the Creative Forces music & arts therapy program for active duty military and veterans has established national partnerships with military music organizations and therapists to provide integrated and veteran-led 1-on-1 components to PTSD and TBI healing for our nation’s veterans.

Katherine is a member of the NFA Diversity & Inclusion Committee, the NFA Performance Health Committee and is an active writer for online publications to include Medium, Thrive Global, Flutist Quarterly, The Advocacy Magazine, among others. 

Locally, Katherine enjoys an active private flute studio and consulting business. She holds a B.A. in Flute Performance from Arkansas Tech University and an M.A. in Arts Leadership and Cultural Management from Colorado State University.