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An Instrumental Advocate for the Disabled

Monika VaseyWhile working on her master’s thesis in music education, harpist Monika Vasey became troubled by the dearth of materials aimed at musicians with disabilities. “Where could a music teacher or parent go to find current resources for a student who is capable of learning a musical instrument, but limited by a physical disability?” she recalls wondering.

Vasey (BM ’05 Harp; BM ’05 Music Education; MM ’07 Music Education) developed a heightened sense of what it’s like to live with a disability, after her father (himself a musician) became a paraplegic when she was in the 8th grade. This awareness, combined with her studies in music education, inspired her to expand the resources available to disabled musicians.

“People are inventing adapted instruments all the time…but if you aren’t from a musical family or a music teacher didn’t know how to help you, [it’s difficult to] know that these adapted music technologies even exist,” she says. Her master’s thesis, a musical instrument resource guide, was the first step in making information about adapted instruments more widely available.

Early on, she says, “the small amount of information I found that directly related to the adaptation of instruments was extremely outdated and limited to simple beaters and guitar picks attached to gloves.” Many of the musical resources were for people with mental disabilities; less attention and resources were devoted to the development of instruments for the physically handicapped. “What do we do when a student with no fingers wants to play the trumpet?” asks Vasey. “How many of us have the tools to rebuild that trumpet with valves operated by foot pedals?”

Her thesis laid the groundwork for Arts Enabled, a program aimed at raising public awareness about the availability of specialized instruments.

In 2008, Vasey joined with VSA Arts in Washington, D.C., an international nonprofit organization that strives to help people with disabilities “to learn through, participate in, and enjoy the arts.” Vasey was named project manager of the Sustaining Music Making for People with Disabilities project, which is working to increase dialogue between musicians with disabilities, researchers, and teachers. “With the help of successful disabled musicians as well as manufacturers, professional music associations, journals, and grant foundations, I hope to further provide support to parents and music teachers, offering consultation on instrument selection and connection to quality, individualized instrument designs,” she says.

Vasey balances her advocacy work with an active performance and teaching schedule. She performs as a soloist as well as in ensembles in and around Baltimore, Washington, and Philadelphia. She’s also in high demand as a teacher and recently moved back to Baltimore to teach at the Levine School of Music. “There is so much for a teacher to gain from performance and for a performer to gain from teaching,” she says. “I get a different kind of joy from working with a class of 6-year-olds in their first music class ever than from playing up on the concert stage in front of hundreds of people. I couldn’t live without either one.”