Music First or Disability First?

by Stefan Sunandan Honisch

Figure 1 Standing in the second row, fourth from left, is Imre Ungar, second prize winner of the 1932 Frederic Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Poland. Source:
Figure 1 Standing in the second row, fourth from left, is Imre Ungar, second prize winner of the 1932 Frederic Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Poland. Source:

Many years ago, I was invited to perform in a building which dates from the late nineteenth century.¹ Since the building lacked an elevator to the recital hall, I was hoisted up the imposing staircase by several volunteers, an experience overly familiar to disabled musicians. I gave two performances that evening: as a disabled musician insisting on my right to participate in the concert, and as a musician with a disability performing for an able-bodied audience (Sutherland, 2005). And yet. My presence in that performance venue was the claiming of a right to be acknowledged on my own terms as a disabled performer, and as more than just the grateful recipient of the kindness of others (being carried up the stairs): as a disabled performer, I refuse to separate my disability from who I am, and could be, as a musician. Yet, as a performer with a disability, I participate in a normalizing framework which treats my disability as separate from my musical identity. That evening, so many years ago, I was both constrained and empowered by the structural barriers which would have excluded me from participation in that concert, and from inclusion in a community of able-bodied musicians, teachers, and a wider public.

My presence onstage for that evening’s concert, as both a disabled musician and a musician who happens to be disabled, raised a series of questions about the politics and aesthetics of musical performance that have reincarnated in my subsequent life as a disabled researcher. I address this research later, but a preliminary sketch of the conceptual terrain will be helpful.
Recently excavated histories of disability in the public sphere are shifting the ground upon which scholars, teachers, students, and activists have for so long ably moved. Wider publics engaging with these disability histories find personal meaning and shared identity. One such history is that of disability in international music competitions, a performance climate which provokes sometimes-heated disagreement often framed as a stark choice: whether disability is the most important or the least important consideration in responding to virtuosic, disabled musicians. Such disagreement, I would argue, requires each of us invested in competitive music-making based on our respective values and commitments to ask ourselves, and each other: what is the difference between being a disabled musician and an able musician who happens to be disabled? The title of this essay further questions whether it is necessary to choose between putting music or disability first.

Promising responses to the question “what is the difference between being a disabled musician and a musician who happens to be disabled” will be found in concrete interactions between specific disabled musicians and their audiences, rather than abstraction. My own provisional response—that one need not be either a disabled musician or a musician who happens to be disabled, that one can modulate from one to the other—is informed by the incongruities of lived experience. Engagement with actual experience is required because, amid the ground shifted by disabled bodies making their histories public, disability arts and culture emerged as a generative site of politically engaged creativity. Historically invested in the difference between “disability artist” and “artist with a disability”, disability arts and culture bring into language, music, and art expressive identities which replace stark choice with uncertainty’s flexible strength.
A recent interview with the musician-activist Gaelynn Lea emphasizes this ambiguity in centering musical and disabled identities. Lea explains:
„I like to be able to choose when I talk about [disability], because I know, no matter what, just standing there is going to make people think. That’s an unavoidable thing and that’s good, I suppose, but I also just want to be seen as a musician, too. I realized I’m in a very privileged position to be able to talk about it, so when I can, when I think it fits, and I think it’s being used for the right reasons, I do like to connect my disability identity to the art and talk about what I think needs to change in our society.”
Profoundly intertwined with, indeed inseparable from the contested political and aesthetic significance ascribed to the distinction between “disability-artist” and “artist with a disability”, then, are larger discussions of disability-first and person-first language in which selfhood, the very right to claim a self, is at stake.

Disability-first and person-first language is not a choice between opposites. The political and educative work of reimagining disability experience cannot fall to disability arts and culture alone. Assigning this heavy responsibility solely to disability arts and culture would allow mainstream culture, beholden to history and tradition, to continue its unimaginative representations of disability as antithetical to technical skill, or its opportunistic effusions (relatively frequent) about disability’s emotional resonance, and (relatively rare), about the aesthetic value of disability.

My own exertions as a disabled musician frequently places me in between “artist with a disability” and “disability-artist” or what I might characterize as “music-first” and “disability-first” performance. Here I mean to identify a continuum rather than a polarity like the one described by Gaelynn Lea: disabled performers recognize that perception of difference is “unavoidable,” and may, indeed, express a certain ambivalence, as does Lea. In demanding that audiences also recognize us as creative, expressive, beings, we are not denying their right to perceive our disabled bodies, but rather calling upon them to allow both aspects free reign in their experiences of what we have to offer.
When I perform in public, my presence on-stage resists easy categorization. Western art music performance norms assume that a pianist sits on a piano bench while playing. I sit in my wheelchair, both while practicing on my own, and when performing in public. I do so for practical rather than political reasons, specifically to facilitate navigation of the keyboard. My wheelchair use in performance is not consciously shaped by desire radically to defy norms of appearance. Nevertheless, by refusing to conceal my wheelchair from the audience, and by operating the damper pedal differently from other pianists, I blur the line between disability-first and music-first performance and intervene in the visual and sonic conditions through which audiences engage with my music-making.
I have since found that questions of music-first or disability-first performance cease to be a choice between capitulation to mainstream ableism, and a forceful disability politics.

My current research situates these in the public sphere of international piano competitions. A host of pedagogical and cultural systems restrict competitive musical performance to what the normal body can do, positioning normal ability as the raw material out of which virtuosic bodies are fashioned.
To accept normal ability as the baseline for competitive virtuosity is to forget that a history of international piano competitions is, in part, a history of disabled bodies. The outer years of this history, still unfolding, are 1932 and 2009. Its protagonists, separated by historical time and geographical space, share common political and musical space as blind virtuoso pianists:
  • Imre Ungár (1909-1972) won second prize in the 1932 Frederic Chopin Competition
  • Edwin Kowalik (1928-1997) a finalist in the 1955 Frederic Chopin Competition
  • Bernard D’Ascoli (1958-) took the top prize in the 1978 Maria Canals Competition, and the third prize in the 1981 Leeds Competition
  • Judyth Whitman (née Walker) (1947-2009) participated in the 1973 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
  • Nobuyuki Tsujii (1988-) co-gold medalist in the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
  • Tamas Erdi (1979-) took part in the Cliburn competition the same year as Tsujii.
The available sources documenting their performances, their critical and popular reception, and in some cases, the pianists’ own writings, raise the stakes of answering the question posed at the outset, as to the differences between being a disabled musician rather than a musician with a disability. In competition, because the emphasis is on virtuosity, a non-normative embodiment like disability, the difference might seem irrelevant, replaced by the work of sorting out those pianists who are able from those who exemplify the virtuosic. A recurring theme in how several of these pianists have been received has to do with uncertainty and contradiction in how to place their blindness. Their critical and popular reception is awash with references to disability, providing ample scope for working through the complexities of what it means to be a “pianist who happens to be blind” rather than a “blind pianist.” While taking note of this, my current work charts a different course by theorizing “vulnerable virtuosity.”

Piano competitions dramatize the seemingly paradoxical relationship between virtuosity as corporeal invulnerability and disability as profound corporeal vulnerability. Juror Menahem Pressler acknowledges that he “had to keep from crying” when he heard Tsujii play the second movement of Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor during the final round of the 2009 Cliburn competition.

His discomfort may very well have had to do with the ethical demands of being a competition juror. Emotional vulnerability communicated to fellow jurors, or to audience members would be out of harmony with the professional codes which demand that jurors be emotionally and musically invulnerable.

Vulnerability and disability, like virtuosity, demand heightened forms of musical engagement, in which the aesthetic demands of music-first performance, and the political interventions of disability-first performance, are inseparable. What I characterize as “vulnerable virtuosity” demands not only musical, but also ethical and reflexive engagement, and resists normalizing the merely superhuman. This entails a move towards an inclusive and accessible account of disability as a form of virtuosity that welcomes both musical ability and human vulnerability to the stage. Without simply ascribing strength to virtuosity and weakness to vulnerability, vulnerable virtuosity challenges our modes of looking and listening to resist comfortable and familiar oppositions between human limits, and superhuman transcendence. As we allow ourselves to be moved by the sights and sounds of a disabled body in performance, we should simultaneously feel and understand that with great emotion comes great responsibility to the vulnerable, disabled other and to the other within ourselves. In my own case, as a student, I treated my disabilities as the other within myself. These days, however, as a disabled scholar and musician, I am not so sure. I feel more wholly and peacefully disabled. And yet…

¹ I am grateful to Ylva Söderfeldt, Pieter Verstraete, and Laura Kinderman, for their thoughtful responses to an earlier draft of this essay.

Stefan Sunandan Honisch is a disabled scholar, teacher, and musician based in Canada. In addition to pursuing research at the intersection of disability studies, music, and education, he serves as a Field Editor for the Public Philosophy Journal. This essay draws on talks he gave at Uppsala University; on September 7, 2017, for the Engaging Vulnerability research program, and on January 23, 2018, for the Department of Musicology’s Research Seminar. He has explored these questions also in his PhD dissertation and his postdoctoral research at Uppsala University in the fall of 2017. See also

Recommended Citation:
Stefan Sunandan Honisch (2018): Music First or Disability First? In: Public Disability History 3 (2018) 4.