UpClose: Adrian Anantawan

Mike Lawson • Features • April 17, 2014

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Exploring strategies for more inclusive music education

Violinist and educator Adrian Anantawan. Photo by Toni Jackson.

Many music educators speak about trying to engage as many students as possible in the act of music making. For children who have physical disabilities, participating in a typical instrumental ensemble can be a particularly challenging proposition. Fortunately, there is now a wide array of adaptive tools in this day and age that have been designed to assist children who have unique physical skill sets. There are also many resources out there for educators who may be unfamiliar with how to best serve these children. And more importantly, even though a disability may be an obvious way in which some children stands apart from their peers, chances are that children with special needs – mental or physical – still have many more things in common with their classmates than they do differences.

One would be foolish not to consider Adrian Anantawan incredibly gifted, even though he was born without a right hand. A prolific violinist, Anantawan has performed extensively with major orchestras in North America and Europe with the help of an adaptation that enables him to manipulate the bow flawlessly. And yet, in spite of having achieved remarkable feats on the stage – feats that might propel others into a lifelong career as a player – Anantawan is driven by his curiosity and range of interests to apply his fascination with music, learning, and opportunity to a greater purpose.

With degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music, Yale, and most recently a master’s in Education from Harvard, Anantawan has been at the forefront of several fascinating explorations into how music can impact children and learning.

In 2008, he founded the Virtual Chamber Music Initiative (VMI), a study designed to apply innovative technology in order to help people with severe disabilities make music. Later, he started the Community Outreach for Developing Artists (CODA) project, which assembled some of the best young musicians in Canada and placed them in school and community music programs with the intent of gaining a better understanding of how people teach, learn, and benefit from music.

Currently the co-director of the music program at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, Adrian Anantawan spoke with SBO about his own formative experiences with music making, while touching on the broader theme that has permeated all of his endeavors: exploring how to make music education more inclusive.


School Band & Orchestra: How did you first become involved in playing music?

Adrian Anantawan: I was nine years old when our teacher decided that everyone in our class would all begin to learn the recorder. Unfortunately, that was not an instrument that I was able to grasp successfully, and my parents thought that it would be great if I could try an alternative. We went through several options including the trumpet, voice, and the drums, and ended up settling on the violin, because my dad had played it when he was younger. And they loved the sound of the instrument, so we went from there.


SBO: Thinking back to yourself as a nine-year-old, what did the prospect of playing a musical instrument do for you?

AA: I was a pretty laid-back kid. I think that it was just another opportunity to do something interesting. It didn’t necessarily feel to me, at that time, as being out of the ordinary to try something new. And that’s a feeling that has pervaded throughout my entire life. Whatever the new thing was, I’d give it a shot and see if it worked; this ended up working out very well.


SBO: How challenging was it to adapt the instrument in such a way that you could play it?

AA: That’s one of the most critical parts to including kids with disabilities in the classroom – you have to work with them on the correct type of adaptation. But even going back further, you have to find the right fit with the instrument. If you’re not someone who naturally gravitates to the violin, even if you have the right adaptation, you’re not going to go far because the motivation to learn won’t be there. Whereas if you start from what the child wants to do from the very beginning and then work the adaptation around that, that provides a higher degree of success. But it is tougher for young children to feel success right away.

I was lucky that I had a very good adaptation straight out of the gate. And for educators, it’s so important that they collaborate with people who are familiar with adaptations and understand the materials that are involved. You also have to think about it from a purely mechanical perspective: what goes into producing sound on an instrument, and what’s most comfortable for the child based on the motions that are natural to them, and then work from there. It takes a lot of prep work ahead of time so that when the adaptation is first introduced to the child, there’s a chance that something successful might happen. Not that there’s necessarily going to be beautiful music coming out of instrument, but that’s going to be the same for every young beginner – it’s going to be raw and not sound the best.


SBO: Of course – learning to make a good sound takes time.

AA: I was very screechy, just like any other child. It was tough to determine the line between how the adaptation was working and what was actually my own development as a child. It’s important not to necessarily come in with the mindset of making a child sound good on the instrument all of the time. If you do take that approach, then there may be certain things that you may not be able to figure out. Like for children with more challenging disabilities like cerebral palsy, or maybe they aren’t capable of doing very much. You don’t want them to be able to press a button and have it sound great right away. There has to be the process where there’s development and something that they can work towards, something that gives them the connection between success and work.


SBO: Have you seen a change in the types of adaptive instruments and products on the market since you’ve had the opportunity to travel, perform, and gain some notoriety?

AA: I don’t know much from the manufacturing perspective, but I definitely feel as if we are in a time when technology is catching up to the organic process of what it is to play an instrument. The irony is that playing a musical instrument is such an old craft, and in order to bridge that old craft to a child that has a disability, you’re going to have the intermediary of advanced technology. We have become much more able to have those types of tools so that teachers can actually consider these adaptations as part of their mindset when they encounter a child who has a limitation physically or mentally.


SBO: At what point in your musical development did you realize that being a professional musician was something you might want to pursue?

AA: It wasn’t until college. Up until that time, [music] was just another thing for me to do that I enjoyed. I only auditioned for one college – the Curtis Institute of Music. That was sort of like a shot in the dark. I was about 16 years old and for some reason I got in. It was one of those things where my parents looked at it like this was a path that had been chosen for me, but I was very interested in other things, too, like academics and biology, especially. But this was such a great opportunity and I decided to pursue it and see what happened. And from there, it developed, but to be honest, the idea of being a professional musician is still evolving. I don’t feel like I’ve completely decided on whether I want to be a professional musician or even an artist, but that’s just part of the growth process in terms of being able to understand your role in society. I’m teaching now, and trying to find that sweet spot between being an educator and a performing musician.


SBO: You’re involved in a number of fascinating educational initiatives that I’d like to discuss. How did you get involved in education?

AA: I was finishing up at Yale in 2008 and was looking to give a recital in Toronto at a pediatric facility called the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, and we did a tour of the music therapy department after I played for them. That was interesting because I had gone to that place, purely from a performance standpoint, to get my adaptation made. Across the hall, they were still using music in some capacity, but mainly from a therapeutic perspective – being able to help kids who had even more challenging disabilities than I do, from autism or cerebral palsy to muscular atrophy or even kids who weren’t able to move any part of their bodies. I was looking at the tools that they were using in order to make music happen for them, and just seeing those tools at work, I was curious to see what would happen if we applied those types of tools to music education, as well, where it’s not only about therapeutic outcomes, but also learning outcomes and, at another level, performance outcomes as well, such as being able to play a concert with your peers. So that’s really what got me thinking.


SBO: Were you thinking about teaching both musical and nonmusical concepts?

AA: It’s all tied together, at least for me. A complete music education not only takes place within the classroom, but also has a performance aspect to it, especially when you’re working with instrumental music. We’re not just trying to get our kids to think about music – we want them to be actively engaged emotionally, physically, and intellectually, and sharing that product with their peers.


SBO: So how did this technology work?

AA: It was a piece of programming where the user would stand in front of a camera attached to a computer that would track movement – no matter how subtle it may be – and translate that into musical sounds. It was being used in some capacity in the music therapy department and part of the project that I started was to figure out a way to move it out of the hospital and into a concert hall setting. I also wanted to measure what the impact was when it was used in an artistic context, rather than just a therapeutic one.

A few months into the project, we met a violinist named Eric Wan, who had been a violinist prior to becoming paralyzed a decade earlier.

He knew how notation works, and he knew how the rehearsal process works, so this seemed like a great opportunity to ask some interesting questions. If we could find a way where Eric could play a piece of classical music with his regularly able peers, how would that work? How would the programming change? What kind of music could we actually do? And how could we really turn this into a research project as well, in terms of measuring psychosocial parameters with assisted devices, for example?

The project lasted for a couple of years, and culminated with Eric playing Pachelbel’s Canon with a full symphony orchestra. 


Through various manipulations in the programming, he was able to play all of the different parts that happened in the orchestra at any time. And the orchestra was able to follow him, so in some ways he was like a conductor-soloist. That’s how that project ended, very successfully, and hopefully we’ll be able to find more opportunities to do things like that in the future.


SBO: Is this more about the budding technology, which could be adapted more widely at some point, or about researching the impact of musical performance on people whose disabilities may prevent them from playing standard instruments?

AA: The two are connected in the sense that in order to advocate for the use of technology within the musical context, we do have to leverage research as a tool for advocacy within a formalized scientific discipline. The applications really have as much to do with performance as they do with education. In order to show that instruments like these are legitimate ways to enhance learning or psychosocial well-being, we have to leverage projects like we did with the VMI. I do hope that the research that we did will in some ways bring awareness that this technology exists, but also start another paradigm where we’re able to mix research and the actual process, at least with kids who may not have the opportunities to play music.


SBO: So the point is to both demonstrate what’s possible, and also seed more activity in this area?

AA: Exactly. There is as much of an educational and intellectual interest as there is a creative interest as well. It all has to match up to make change happen.


SBO: And the CODA project was totally different, right?

AA: The CODA project was a result of working at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Canada. I was on staff working with some of the top-performing teenagers in the country, essentially. We decided to create a series of courses and workshops that one might call a “teaching artistry,” although we didn’t call it that at that point. We were working with these high-performing kids, getting them out into the community, and having them figure out a way to contribute to society in ways that are not just necessarily performing in a concert hall – for example, working with kids who might not have the opportunity to play instruments.

It was a way for us to be able to experiment and hear kids think about how teaching works, and how assessment works in classical music. At that time, teaching artistry hadn’t really found the mainstream prevalence that it has today in many orchestral programs and youth programs. But we were able to do it up in Canada, and we learned a lot from that experience.


SBO: So those experiences piqued your interest in education, and what was the next step for you?

Anantawan at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston. Photo by Toni Jackson.

AA: Now I’m working at a charter school in Boston that serves about 300 kids, K-7, and all of them play musical instruments. It’s an El Sistema-inspired program, and the kids get about two hours a day of music instruction, either through literacy or through learning their actual instrument.

This is a good spot to have landed. I’m working with an age group with which I’m comfortable, and I feel like this has a lot of potential to reconnect with some of the previous initiatives that I worked on – only this time, with a much broader base, not just the few kids that we work with in the CODA project and the VMI project.

I’m trying to understand how teaching works on the ground level, whether kids have disabilities or not. Figuring out how it works within the context of this school will be a good stepping stone in terms of being able to replicate better practices throughout the country. It’s one thing to say that you can do something on a specific level – on a private level or even in one type of building – but if you can make it in a public or quasi-public setting, then you can use those structures and models to get even more kids with disabilities, for instance, into being able to have access to music.


SBO: How did the VMI and CODA projects inform your instruction?

AA: For those two initiatives, I was a very young educator, sort of learning my way through. Now I have four years of experience, but I’m still learning quite a bit. The key defining factor between all of the things that I’ve done is that you have to try to understand yourself first, rather than trying to get your students to think in a certain way. Students will always have their own desires, dreams, and goals, and if you can listen to those and then align your teaching as closely as possible within their capabilities, then you’re hopefully giving them the breathing room and freedom to learn in a way that’s best for them.

I’m not as much interested in “special music education,” so much as “inclusive music education.” Music is a way to connect with peers and segregating students further based on development or ability opens up another can of worms in terms of being able to make this happen. The motivation behind music is often about being able to connect with people around you and the world at large. When you have that, the motivation and will to learn and to achieve or conquer challenges are going to be there as well.


SBO: What would you recommend as first steps for educators who may be unfamiliar in terms of working with students with disabilities?

AA: There are two big things: figure out what the child wants and what his or her motivation is, then figure out what he or she can do physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Use the tools that students already have and leverage those as much as possible, and then connect those tools to their interests and motivation. And from there, do a lot of research and try to understand their world. It’s very entrepreneurial in a sense, when you’re trying to figure out a suitable adaptation for these children, because we just aren’t at a point where we have a collection of best practices yet. That’s going to eventually happen as we go into the coming decade because there’s such an interface of technology that we’ll be able to share those tools. But at this point, teachers themselves need to remain motivated and understand that every child has the potential to be successful, as long as they persevere and remain inspired.

Hopefully that inspiration goes both ways; I certainly feel it when I work with these kids. They make me into a better musician and a better teacher.



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