‘The other way around’?

Do disabilities acquire people?

Plunging – into the sound of water? Thanks to H-B family for frogs

In an essay on a project called Musical Minds, a project that was facilitated by music therapist Sarah Wilson, Gary Ansdell muses on how, ‘”communities of practice” catalyse fundamental social processes of participation, meaning-making, identity, and belonging’ (2010: 48). His essay highlights one of the bedrock features of ‘community music therapy’, namely that we – our capabilities and identities – come into being socially, through the ways we participate, and are facilitated to participate, in social groups. Music, in this perspective is not ‘what we do’ ‘to’ or ‘for’ people, but rather, what people do together…As Ansdell notes, Sarah was ‘not employed specifically as a “music therapist,” but to be a “music facilitator”…’ (p.18). This difference is deeply significant. And it is an idea that lies at the heart of the Care for Music Project

Some years ago, music sociologist Mariko Hara studied community singing for people living with dementia (Hara 2011). The group she observed was also composed of a facilitator, people living with dementia and their friends, carers or loved ones, and volunteers. One of Hara’s key findings was that, from within musical situations, it was often very difficult for newcomers to distinguish between these three ‘types’ of people because the format of the musical activities there diminished difference within the group. She writes:

‘Inside the musical community of SFTB , which encompasses a variety of ways of participating, the differences between people with and without dementia are reduced’ (Hara 2011: n.p.).


‘The way that a music therapeutic environment can affect one to become “someone else” has also been discussed in community music therapy (Ansdell, 2002). Aasgaard (2000) has talked about how song creation in a paediatric oncology ward shifted one client’s role from “patient” to “song maker” or “creative person.” ‘ (Hara 2011: n.p.)

We see this role shift happening in all of our research sites -in the Hospice work with Wolfgang Schmid and Fraser Simpson and, of course, at Hill House. It is perhaps hardly surprising: community music therapy has recognised, and been steeped in, the idea that our attributes and identities take shape in relation to each other – and therefore in relation to the ways we make music together. As such it overlaps, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly, with research in the theory and ethnography of learning….


Jean Lave, social anthropologist, Emeritus Professor of Geography, University of California Berkeley, is known around the world for her research on, among other things, ‘situated learning’ and ‘cognition in practice’. Her work has highlighted how skill, intelligence, communicative abilities, the capacity for learning are not ‘inside’ us but take shape in relation to the environments where we operate. In her publications, Lave describes learning and cognition as matters that develop through ‘peripheral practice’ – the kinds of ‘apprenticeship’ that happen gently, as people come together and learn from each other. These apprenticeships include the kinds of learning that seems sometimes to occur like osmosis, through tacit, embodied action (see Atkinson 2013 and Delamont & Stephens 2008) and, as we discussed in our previous Research Vignette (Wandering Free) – embodied cognition.

Throughout our lives, we undergo apprenticeships within what Lave and education-researcher Etienne Wenger terms, ‘communities of practice’ – domains of interest we share with others that contain different kinds of resources and repertoires we can ‘acquire’. One of the key implications of this perspective is that what comes to count as our identities, capabilities and potentialities is flexible; who we are, what we can do, emerges in relation to our situation and what that situation affords and how those affordances are controlled and distribute – as opportunities for action. Situations, which, within Care for Music, we understand ecologically, are therefore laden with the small-p politics – definitions of situations that have consequences for how we – different groups of us, individuals  can live… 


Back in the 1980s, Tia’s PhD research focused on the sociology of how exceptional talent comes to be recognised.  Her research focused on the social bases and social consequences of Beethoven’s emergence, during his first decade in Vienna, as ‘a genius’. She was lucky enough to have been at the University of California where she was supervised by Hugh (‘Bud’) Mehan. In 1986, Mehan and co-authors (Alma Hertweck and J. Leigh Meihls) published Handicapping the Handicapped: Decision Making in Students’ Educational Careers. As Lave puts it in her 2019, Learning and Everyday Life: Access, Participation and Changing Practice when describing how ‘special’ identities emerge, swell and ebb in relation to organisational culture and organisational needs:

“Further evidence that school accomplishments (including failure) are situated and collective is to be found in demonstrations that a child’s “handicap” may be reformulated when it turns out to be incompatible with class scheduling requirements (Mehan, Hertweck, and Meihls 1986), and in McDermott’s argument that learning disabilities acquire the child, rather than the other way around.” (2019: 35)

This notion, that cultures ‘acquire’ types of people, is good to think with. It directs us to some key questions about how identities, and social problems, take shape in the ‘in between’ of individuals and cultural ecologies – terrains, practices and materials that are to be found in the places where people come into contact. And, as with ‘special’ children in schools, so too adults living with dementia in care facilities. No one of us is ‘the same person’ from situation to situation; we sometimes speak of having a ‘good day’ or ‘not being quite ourselves’. Our states of being are temporal; we flourish and languish to different degrees according to where we are and who we’re with. And in relation to many other features of the scenes and settings within which we find ourselves and that make ‘atmosphere’, and within which we may feel empowered, or, conversely, ‘lost’.

So, to speak of how some situations may bring out ‘the best’ in us and others may actually suppress our ability to – in our own ways – flourish, is to speak about how creative capabilities acquire us, rather than the other way around. And those acquirements can be made manifest in and through the ways they rest within communities of practice, in the places and spaces where we acquire skills, or rather, where skills may acquire us.


In 1985, Nora Groce published a book entitled, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language. It described, using an historical case study, how on Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts in the USA, there was a high proportion of hereditary hearing impairment. And yet, communicative practices and patterns of work were such that people ‘living with hearing impairment’ were well integrated into the social fabric. They did not think of themselves as having a disability and the difference between people who could hear audible sound and people who could not was, for all practical purposes, not apparent. There were no (or far fewer) situations or practices that would make such differences into matters for attention and because they did not matter, as it were, there were no forms of social exclusion built around them. The culture did not, in other words ‘acquire’ hearing impaired people. 


To speak of communities of practice is, as we said at the start of this blog entry, to speak of people pursuing shared activities, tapping resources and repertoires for that pursuit and in ways that are capable of altering the social distribution of opportunities for action. (As when, for example, care staff at Hill House describe seeing residents in a ‘new light’ after witnessing their musical creativity.) Charles Goodwin, in his study of, as he puts it, ‘how a man with a vocabulary restricted to three words is nonetheless able to function as a very powerful speaker in conversation’ (2011: 185) describes how ‘power’ (to be heard) is linked to the semiotic and interactive practices within a particular speech community. 

Goodwin outlines, ‘a model of the speaker that moves beyond the individual’ (Goodwin 2018: 68). The speaker, Chil, lost the ability to use words in talk after a ruptured blood vessel to the left hemisphere of his brain and paralysis on the right side of his body. Nonetheless, as Goodwin describes, Chil retained and was able to employ a wide repertoire of ‘semiotic resources’- prosody (the pitch and musical features of speech), pointing, and gestures. These were in turn responded to by others – his friends and family – who understood and helped Chil to realise meanings and communicative intent. As Goodwin observes, a focus on this joint, practical, responsive activity has implications for how we think about what language is and how it works. Language is not something that each of us, individually or privately learns (or does not learn) to ‘master’: rather it is, ‘a public embodied interactive field that is sustained and constituted from moment to moment by the coordinated, differentiated work of structurally different kinds of actors’ (2011: 185). Or, as he says a few pages on:

“Rather than being a hidden capacity that resides within the mental life of the individual, language is organized as a public interactive field. Actors with different abilities, or who may occupy different positions within that field (C. Goodwin 1984), can nonetheless contribute to production and organization of action through language in different ways. By participating in this field, and using language – some of it from his interlocutor – to build relevant action, Chil acts as a speaker capable of conveying complex propositions through language use in interaction, despite his inability to produce sentences as an individual (2011: 186). 

So, Chil’s semiotic agency emerges from the scenes and interrelations where it takes place – what others bring to the situation and how meaning is interactively produced, how it is collaboratively altered in some ways from its original intention – or partial intention – and this is a feature of all utterances, something we all share with Chil: what we say is not fully ‘formed’ until it is responded to by others and thatprocess may run and run – indefinitely. And this is where, we think, ‘learning’ – Chil’s own learning, his friends’ learning, his family’s learning, our own learning – is, simultaneously, ‘adapting’ and responding to perceived needs. To learn is also – to create. We are reminded here of the famous Haiku by Bashō:

With thanks to Motoko Hara (Hamill 1995)

Thinking of learning as creating (plunging into what the leaping makes, perhaps?) highlights in turn the importance of design: and designing, through musical means, ‘learning’ or ‘developmental’ or ‘creative’ opportunities (and with them, within them communities of practice) is as relevant in care homes as it is in schools or communities. It is about being responsive to what others do and can do and will do and do together. The semiotic resources are used for this design work (crafting) may include much more than words – especially when, for various reasons, the spoken word is problematic (linked to dementia or hearing impairment) and where embodied (and aesthetic) modalities (sign language; music) are easier to access, and easier to use for creating communities of practice. And those communities can be conceived as ‘safe spaces’, ‘conducive spaces’. They can be preventative – preventing, at least for a time (and taking care not to idealise), that organisations do not ‘acquire’ disability. 

Thinking about what organisations ‘acquire’ has led us, in Care for Music, to the methodological practices of ‘zooming in’(no pun intended, given the current socially distanced situation). Honing in to examine the fine-grained craft, and the necessities, of producing situations of learning in late life. Trying to understand what it can mean to ‘talk to each other in tones’, as Beethoven said to Baroness Ertmann, when seeking to condole with her after a loss. Examining the fine-grained interplay of music and gesture, understood as embodied cognition, furthers also our understanding of aesthetic materials and gestures as scaffolding for being the, ‘everyone here’, and in ways that tap and advance a musical community of practice. As Wittgenstein once put it, aesthetics is ethics (see DeNora 2013: 124). 

References cited:

Ansdell, G. 2010.Reflection. Belonging through musicing: Explorations through musical community. Pp. 41-65 in Stige, B, G. Ansdell, C. Elefant and M. Pavlicevic, Where Music Helps: Community Muysic Therapy in action and Reflection. Farnham: Ashgate.

Atkinson, P. 2013. Ethnography and Craft Knowledge. Qualitative Sociology Review IX, 2. https://orca.cf.ac.uk/58205/1/PA%20Atkinson_Ethnography%20and%20Craft%20Knowledge_QSR%20IX%202%2056-63.pdf

Delamont, S and N Stephens. 2008. Up on the Roof: The Embodied Habitus of Diasporic Capoeira. Cultural Sociology 2(1):57-74. 

DeNora, T. 2013. Music Asylums: Music and Wellbeing in Everyday Life. London: Routledge.

Goodwin, C. 2018. Co-Operative Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Groce, N. 1985. Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hamill, S. (Translator). 1995. The Sound of Water: Haiku by Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Other Poets. Boston & London: Shambhala Centaur Editions

Hara M. 2011.. Expanding a Care Network for People with Dementia and their Carers Through Musicking: Participant Observation with “Singing for the Brain”. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy11(2). https://doi.org/10.15845/voices.v11i2.570

Lave, J. 2019. Learning and Everyday Life: Access, Participation and Changing Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J. and E. Wenger. 2000. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mehan, H. L. Meihls and A. Hertweck. 1986. Handicapping the Handicapped: Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Streeck, J, C. Goodwin and Curtis LeBaron (Eds). 2011. Embodied interaction: Language and Body in the Material World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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