How can we make musical instruments truly accessible to all?

As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Take it away scheme, our chief executive Mary-Alice Stack reflects on the origins of the initiative and the importance of understanding and responding to the needs of disabled musicians in the decade ahead.

Take it away 10th anniversary event

Back in 2006, when I was first asked by Arts Council England to look into the potential of developing a version of the Own Art scheme for the music sector, the impetus was very much around financial inclusion. We wanted to ensure that the upfront costs of purchasing a musical instrument weren’t a barrier to participation, and to create a trusted brand that would give people the confidence to go into their local music shop to ask for help and advice in choosing the right instrument.

We also wanted to give parents the choice to support their child’s individual interest in music, no matter what kind of instrument they wanted to play. When it launched nationally in July of 2007, the Take it away scheme was open to all: not means tested, not targeted at particular musical genres, fully inclusive and open to anyone, young or old, who wanted to play music.

The scheme was an instant success, quickly generating more than £12m of sales per annum, and although we subsequently had to narrow down the criteria to focus on the needs of children and young people, inclusivity has remained central to ethos of the scheme. Or was it?

Over the past few months I’ve had my eyes opened to something that I simply hadn’t seen before, and that is in order for the Take it away scheme to be truly inclusive, we need to go beyond financial inclusion and look at whether the provision of the instruments themselves are accessible.

Anyone lucky enough to have seen a musician like John Kelly perform live will understand just how important this is, and what a remarkable thing he has achieved working in partnership with Drake Music Labs to develop the ‘Kellycaster’, a uniquely designed guitar using bespoke accessible music technology.

That’s why we are so excited to be announcing this week a brand new initiative between Creative United, Drake Music, OpenUp Music and OHMI Trust that will aim to make adapted instruments and new music technology more widely available.

Together, we will be working towards:

  1. Improve our collective understanding of the potential demand for adapted and specialist musical instruments for use by aspiring and professional musicians of all kinds and in particular disabled children and adults across the UK
  2. Enable existing prototype adaptations (from OHMI, OpenUp Music, DM Labs and other sources) to be taken further into small-scale batch production for wider distribution and use
  3. Enable the development of bespoke new accessible musical instruments to meet the needs of an individual, and the documentation and sharing of designs in the open source model
  4. Explore ways in which we can develop and train a workforce that has the knowledge and skills to introduce and demonstrate adaptive instruments located in ‘centres of music retail excellence’ around the UK
  5. Provide financial assistance to families and individuals that need access to these types of instruments by providing a combination of grants and loans to ensure equality of access for all
  6. Raise the profile of music making by disabled children and adults, increasing awareness of the opportunities and sources of support available to enable more people to access music.

With their help, I hope that as a sector we can move us towards a position where both adapted and new musical instruments are as accessible as any others – broadening the definition of musical instruments and making sure the musicianship (in whatever form it takes) is truly accessible to all.

Images from our 10th anniversary event at Bush Hall, 12 March 2018, including:

  • Mary-Alice Stack, CEO Creative United
  • John Kelly & his KellyCaster
  • Tony Bowen, Human Jukebox
  • World Heat Beat performing New Orleans Jazz