“Re-narrating Disability” through Musical Performance (by Stefan Sunandan Honisch)
Honisch is a concert pianist in British Columbia who has Spina Bifida. His contributions to music go beyond being a musician with a disability. By example, he has paved the way to greater recognition and participation for physically impaired musicians.
On this journey, Honisch experienced both positive and negative responses to his own performance.
He writes: “When I was in Salzburg to participate in the Internationale Sommerakademie of the Mozarteum, the director Alexander Muellenbach observed that I played as though there were no “disability” present. In particular he complimented my pedaling, perhaps the single greatest source of struggle for me from both a technical and artistic standpoint. He expressed interest in how I achieved a variety of effects with the pedal, but contextualized his remarks within a larger discussion of interpretation. In that space, and in that moment, I ceased to be “disabled” even though my physical condition was readily visible to the audience. It seems that a musically convincing performance can indeed allow audience perceptions of physical “otherness” to recede into the background in certain public performance situations.
A rather extreme example of the reverse, that is, an inflexible hyper-awareness of my physical condition, comes from my childhood. After I had performed in a class recital featuring the students of my second piano teacher, a woman came up to me and asked me how I managed to operate the damper pedal without proper foot movement. Somewhat embarrassed by her blunt fixation on my pedaling technique, I explained that I had devised a way of pedaling by lifting my entire leg in order to allow my foot to operate the pedal. After several more questions about the specific nature of my condition (Spina Bifida) and about my restricted leg movement, she walked away. I do not recall her asking me about the music I had performed, or attempting to engage in a discussion of interpretation. Instead her anxiety about my ability to fulfill the task at hand (rendering a given work in a convincing manner) clouded her ability to evaluate whether or not I had, in fact, succeeded.
The collision of these vastly different reactions to my playing not only with each other, but with my own views of the relationship between my physical impairment and my music-making illustrates the complexity involved in identity-construction.
My single greatest concern when performing on an unfamiliar piano is the damper pedal. These pedals vary widely in size and shape, and also in their distance from the floor. Because my right leg does not fully extend outwards, I sometimes have to sit uncomfortably close to the keyboard, in a physically cramped manner, in order to reach the damper pedal. Of course, this impacts my overall playing technique, since muscular relaxation is essential to good tone production and fluent mechanics. It is unpleasant, and psychologically disabling to realize that my inability to use the damper pedal on a given piano can have a significant, even drastic impact on my technical fluency and could therefore impact the overall artistic quality of my playing.
In an effort to deal effectively with this situation, I have had designed a number of external devices which can be attached to the damper pedal. The principal aim of these devices has been to serve as an extension to the pedal in order to accommodate my restricted right leg movement. However, these mechanisms, while initially promising, have ultimately proven ineffective since their design does not allow them to remain firmly attached to the pedal for a significant length of time. During practice sessions with these devices, I have had trouble maintaining contact with my foot, and have also noticed that these devices invariably slide either right or left after a few minutes. Also, these pedal extensions require an involved effort to attach them to the damper pedal, requiring movements such as bending down, and crouching, which are beyond my range of physical ability. Although I am happy to seek assistance when necessary, I would prefer to have a mechanical pedal extension which is designed in such a way that I can attach it to the pedals myself.
The most significant break-through in my pedaling technique occurred after I stopped wearing my leg-braces during performances. Without the added bulk of these braces, I have been able to slide myself slightly further underneath the keyboard, and closer to the pedal. Furthermore, the absence of my leg-braces during performances has had the pleasing psychological effect of allowing me to feel physically ‘able-bodied.’”
Thursday, April 26, 2012 Rick Hansen Competition Results:
Stefan Honisch has been awarded the prestigious Rick Hansen “Man in Motion” Fellowship in 2012/13.
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