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‘Tiny Desk’ winner on why musicians with disabilities are an ‘unequal minority’

The day she found out she had won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, musician Gaelynn Lea played her fiddle for a crowd in her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. But until NPR released the news, she couldn’t tell anyone.

“It was sort of surreal,” she said.

Her song “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun,” an unforgettable fiddle melody accompanied by poetic lyrics, was chosen from 6,100 submissions to win the contest. Lea, 32, is based in Duluth and plays there often as a solo artist and as part of the band Murder of Crows. She was born with brittle bone disease, a rare congenital condition, so the most comfortable way for her to play the violin is upright, like a cello. Lea developed the method with her teachers in elementary school, and since then she has become an accomplished musician along with an outspoken advocate for accessibility in the music industry for people with disabilities.

As she prepared to travel to Washington, D.C., to give her own Tiny Desk Concert at NPR, we talked about her first music teacher, the origins of her unique style and why she wants to see more musical festivals that are accessible for all artists.

How have things been going since you won?

I knew it might be a little bit more intense than I was expecting. The day of [the announcement], I woke up and Facebook was all full, and Twitter was all full, and my emails were all full, but it was exciting. And then I’ve been doing quite a few interviews this week and I had a show the day I found out, but I couldn’t tell anyone until the next week. And then I had a show the day after it was announced as well in Duluth, and so that was a super fun show to play because everybody there was super supportive.

Have any of the reactions surprised you at all?“There are legitimate artists out there, lots of them, with disabilities. But it’s hard to be included if you can’t get into the venue in the first place, or can’t get a ride to the venue in the first place.” — musician Gaelynn Lea

The only thing that’s kind of a surprise was just how many people took time out to send me a little email, people who I’ve never met before who enjoyed the video and just wanted to say congratulations. I’ve been getting a lot of really kind notes of support from people all over the country and that’s been really neat.

Were there other instruments you tried before violin and fiddle?

In fourth grade the orchestra came to my school and I remember thinking that I really just loved the sound. And I actually was drawn to the cello at first. So in fifth grade, when we had a chance to do a music-listening test with the orchestra, I went and took it with a bunch of my friends, and I was the only person that aced the test. I think that’s why the orchestra teacher really took it seriously and helped me figure out how to play. She was very instrumental. Her name was Susan Sommerfeld. She said, “We really gotta find a way for you to be in orchestra because I think you would like it.”

And so we tried the cello at first, because that’s what I thought about, but it was just too big. I couldn’t reach where the bow needed to go. I couldn’t get all the way down towards the bridge. And so then we tried the violin on my shoulder but that was also too big. I couldn’t reach the end of the fingerboard, up by the scroll.

We decided to try to play my violin like a cello but I would be in the violin section and that was kind of how we came to that. She was really neat, just open minded, helped me figure out the technique. I hold my bow like a bass bow, and so that took a little while to figure out as well. And I don’t use my fourth finger, and so some of the fingerings that I did, especially as we got more advanced, I had some really good private lesson teachers too, and they would help me rework the fingering so I could keep up with orchestra.

How does Celtic music influence you?

In my senior year of high school, I started learning traditional American fiddle music. At a local pub, they had a jam every Thursday night. And I would play there and learn some tunes by ear. That’s kind of when I got introduced to the concept of playing without sheet music … When I went to college — I went to Macalaster College in St. Paul for three years — at that school they have a program called Flying Fingers, it’s a one-credit extracurricular. About 50 students get together and they divide into bands of about six or seven people. I joined that group and it’s all Irish, all the bands are pretty much Irish music. For four different semesters at least, I would play in these Celtic bands. We would get together once a week and just learn new music, some of it was by ear, some of it was with sheet music, but I learned a lot, and that’s when you get into the concepts at that point of ornamentation that sounds more Celtic and melodies that are more Celtic, the rhythms and stuff.

I don’t know how that crept into my improvisation music, because when I play with bands, a lot of that’s not written down, it’s just the way I hear the music. I love harmony a lot. In most of my bands, except for the most recent one, I always just sang harmony, so I didn’t do the lead vocals. In the Murder of Crows, the band that I’m still in with Alan Sparhawk, I do usually sing the lead, but most of the time I sing harmony. That’s how I see my violin, is like a second voice to me. I like to harmonize with my violin, but a lot of people say that you can hear the Celtic influence. Probably it’s just subconsciously in my brain now.

How has your disability affected the way that you play and your musical style?

When you start doing a lot of shows and realizing that people know you from music and go to your shows, it kind of became evidence that it was probably a good idea to start talking about disability in a more public way. It is something that I’m passionate about and music is a medium to bring up a bigger topic to me. My music isn’t really about disability per se, it’s just about what I think about, and I suppose everything in my life has been somewhat shaped by my disability, but the music itself is just what’s coming out of me at this time in my life.

But one thing I have tried to raise some awareness about is accessibility for venues. I think a lot of places think about making their venues accessible to the audience, but what I would love to see is more disabilities represented in the performing sector too because I know there are people with disabilities playing and creating art and performing. But it is still a pretty unequal minority in terms of the people who are out playing regularly.

I think part of the issue is that it’s hard to get transportation and it’s hard to get in venues. I’m small. I only weigh about 68 pounds or something like that. People can lift me onstage and so I have been lucky enough to be able to still perform even though I can’t get on most of the stages, because people lift me on. But if you weighed 200 pounds, it would be a lot harder. So one thing I want to advocate for is not just for my benefit, because I’ve been able to make it work without really anything changing in terms of accessibility, but I would really like to see venues and music festivals and art organizations reach out to people with disabilities. Because there are legitimate artists out there, lots of them, with disabilities. But it’s hard to be included if you can’t get into the venue in the first place, or can’t get a ride to the venue in the first place.

To me, the biggest barrier to disability is more about society being inaccessible rather than my body being a certain way. So to raise awareness about that, I’m happy to do that, and music seems to be a pretty good outlet for that, but it was never my intention going in, I just really liked performing, and I was going to do it no matter what. And so I have. But now that I’m here, especially now that I won this contest, I definitely don’t want to be silent on an issue that I think needs to be addressed more often.

Why is music a particularly effective way to advocate for people with disabilities?

It [connects] with people on a level that’s maybe more intuitive or more connected to their hearts. It’s not just about logic. A lot of the reason I think people with disabilities are lagging so far behind in terms of quality and economic measures and other things is … because it costs money to renovate a building, right? And it costs money to build a ramp. And people think about disabilities form a perspective that is not intuitive or based on the heart, just as a cost measure. Especially businesses. One thing that music does is allow people to connect a little more on a heart level or a soul level.

When I do speaking engagements about disability I always end with music and it seems to resonate with people. I think I’d do that anyway, because I love to play, and it’s fun to do, but I do think it helps to take it out of the realm of, “Oh, this isn’t feasible because of our budget this year.” But in reality, if you realize, “Oh, that’s a human person that I’m talking about, and if it was me or if it was my son and my daughter, what would I want?” And then it takes the cold hard money part of it out of the equation.

You can read more about how NPR’s judges decided the winner at NPR’s website.