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Change Makers

To mark the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act, Sound Connections Deputy Director Jenn Raven spoke on BBC Radio 3 Music Matters about Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Change Makers – a ground-breaking programme embedding disability equality across the Orchestra that Sound Connections evaluated between 2017 and 2019.

Listen to Jenn’s interview here>
The BSO Change Makers segment is at 21:55 and lasts a few minutes, but the whole episode is well worth listening to! 

NB in the radio programme James’ voice is over-dubbed, which is not in line with Sound Connections’ disability equality values. To hear James uninterrupted you can listen to him speaking in films on the BSO’s website:

In 2017 we started working with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO) to research and evaluate their Change Makers programme, which was all about embedding disability equality across the Orchestra. It involved training James Rose, a disabled conductor, establishing disabled-led ensemble Resound, and a programme of organisational change activities.

Sound Connections spent 18 months working alongside the team and musicians of the BSO, we got to know the orchestra’s audience, and consulted with the wider sector from other orchestras to funders and supporters.

From the evaluation, and all we have continued to learn since, there are five key areas of learning and recommendations:

  1. Organisational Change

It was significant that one strand of the money invested in Change Makers was about concerted organisational, cultural change – which meant the effects ran much deeper and it wasn’t a short-lived or tokenistic project.

Crucially, everyone was involved whatever their role (it wasn’t just confined to one or two individuals or teams). As a company they were constantly reflecting and learning from the ups and downs – something like this had never been done before, so they were all learning together by experimenting.

Leading the company-wide effort there was clear, genuine and inspirational leadership and investment from CEO Dougie Scarfe and the Board of Trustees – this filtered through to every level of the organisation.

Early on in the programme, all musicians in the Orchestra, administrative staff and the leadership team received Disability Equality Training. The training increased the belief that BSO could be more inclusive of disabled people, and also built confidence in the company to interact with disabled people.

There were always big, long-term, strategic ambitions for the programme, but there were also lots of smaller but equally important everyday changes constantly in motion. For example: upgrading the website so it’s more accessible; adapting invoice and payment forms so they can be read by accessible software; staff using new venue accessibility checklists; and disability awareness becoming part of staff appraisals.

Lastly there’s a hugely important though perhaps less tangible thing, which is a company-wide ethos and attitude. People feel able to talk openly about disability, they don’t feel embarrassed to say the wrong thing, they are incredibly reflective and open-minded people, and they are all focused on finding solutions.

Fundamentally the BSO became a different place to work as a result of Change Makers.

  1. The Change Maker – conductor James Rose

The person at the heart of Change Makers was James Rose – an emerging professional conductor. He joined BSO to get first-hand, on-the-job training.

For a disabled person, entering the music industry is fraught with barriers from a young age, for example James talks about the low expectations teachers had of him at school and not fitting into the norms or expectations of music education or the music industry. BSO Change Makers gave him the support and a structured programme of training and mentoring to become a professional conductor.

James became completely embedded in the organisation and he was very present and visible as the lead Change Maker – he’d spend a lot of time at the BSO office and observing rehearsals, and so became an integral part of the team.

By the end of 18 months James brought new ways of thinking and leading to the Orchestra, and broke down attitudinal barriers by showing people what’s possible.

  1. A professional disabled-led ensemble: BSO Resound

One of James’ main roles was forming and conducting Resound, a professional disabled-led ensemble. BSO became the first orchestra in the world to embed an ensemble of this nature into its portfolio. Resound has been an absolute triumph, not least because one of their first concerts was given at the 2018 BBC Proms to rapturous applause.

The most important thing about Resound is that it is driven by artistic quality and ambition – it is an exceptional, professional ensemble that just so happens to be made up of disabled people. Because of this it completely challenges people’s assumptions and leaves you in absolutely no doubt that disabled people are and can be brilliant musicians.

The ensemble’s success in creating change is because:

  • it was perceived and accepted as an integral part of the overall BSO portfolio – not an isolated, separate project;
  • it’s about great music, not disability;
  • through Resound the BSO was able to develop a more flexible approach to auditions;
  • Resound musicians also play within the full symphony Orchestra so they became integrated, not siloed

Ultimately Resound has changed the way people perceive disabled people, brought incredible new music to the world and begun inspiring a new generation of young disabled people.

  1. Audience experience

We consulted members of BSO’s audience throughout the research. There’s sometimes a fear that doing things differently will mean losing the support of loyal audiences but this couldn’t have been further from the truth – even at the start of the programme 80% of people we spoke to thought it was possible for disabled people to be part of a professional orchestra. Once they had seen Resound perform, they were completely blown away. People found it very emotionally powerful, they were drawn into the new sound-world of the ensemble, and they loved the newly commissioned music.

Resound also worked with lots of children and young people in schools who were so excited to meet musicians like them, who they could look up to as role models. For many it unlocked their belief that they could be musicians too – this influence is powerful and the roots of change for future generations.

The number of disabled people in BSO’s audience increased significantly during the course of Change Makers, which just goes to show the importance of people being able to relate to who’s on the stage.

Through Change Makers the BSO captured the imagination of their audience and built a new audience base.   

  1. Making change today

Two years on, the findings and recommendations are as relevant as ever. The BSO has shown us what’s possible, set the bar and increased the sense of urgency about the need for change. Progress requires practical, attitudinal, and systemic shifts, and Change Makers led the way with all three.

Having reflected back on Change Makers, what has happened since, and the action needed in a rapidly changing world, my recommendations include:

Making disability equality the norm. The prevailing attitude needs to move away from this work being niche and specialised – it needs to be the absolute norm. For a long time, the focus has been on including disabled people as audience members or providing opportunities for participation in education and outreach projects. These are both important but the BSO has embraced something more holistic, which includes seeing and believing in disabled people as professional musicians, and recognising they bring the most incredible skills and creativity to the music industry.

Creative renewal and innovation. The innovation and creative renewal that disabled musicians bring is inspiring and exciting. Many disabled people have had to navigate the world in a different way and make music in a different way, so music played and composed by ensembles like Resound unlocks so many exciting new possibilities and sounds. If we remain fixed in our ideas of how music should sound and we are preoccupied with fitting excluded people into rigid ideas about how we’ve made music for centuries, then creating change will be a challenge. If instead we are open to new sound-worlds and aesthetics, then change becomes much more possible.

New musical pathways. There are still too few coherent and readily available progression routes for young disabled people who want to develop as musicians and enter the music profession – all music education organisations need to consider their role in creating inclusive pathways.

Practical adaptions. There are widespread practical barriers like rigid audition practices and lack of fully accessible venues – these are completely possible to address, and even more possible if the whole sector learns and adapts together.

Honesty and openness. It’s rare to find organisations in which openness and acceptance of disability is commonplace. It needs to become common practice that anyone with a disability – visible or invisible – can be open and honest about what they need in order to succeed and thrive, and that there’s no concern about being denied opportunities because of disability.

The context and challenges of 2020 have prompted us all to consider new needs and opportunities:

All voices. It is a particularly challenging and troubling time for the music industry, for live music and for disabled people – first and foremost we all need to act in solidarity to ensure our amazing sector survives and thrives. We need to do that in a way that involves everyone and all voices.

Shared decisions with disabled people. As we look ahead and continue to adapt, there is a chance to do things differently and inclusively. Most important of all, disabled people themselves must be at the heart of how we move forward – organisations need to actively listen to and involve disabled people in decision making.

Self-awareness and growth. Ultimately creating this sort of change requires us all to dig deep, to learn, to challenge our own assumptions and to envision how things could be – times of change bring opportunities to reflect and be bold about experimenting in ways we may not have otherwise.

Intersectionality. With the Black Lives Matter movement coming to the fore, organisations across sectors and across the globe are looking inwards, reflecting, and facing up to institutional injustice – this means many people are considering diversity and inclusion in a deeper way than they have before. This is an opportunity for people to identify issues and create change in an intersectional way looking at race and disability discrimination concurrently.

To download and read the full BSO Change Makers report click here:


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