Adaptive gear allows disabled musicians to keep playing

A special mouthpiece crafted in the Netherlands allows Leslie Thompson, 27, to play the flute after she suffered disabling injuries from a 2012 auto accident.
A special mouthpiece crafted in the Netherlands allows Leslie Thompson, 27, to play the flute after she suffered disabling injuries from a 2012 auto accident. Special to the Ledger-Enquirer

Flutist Leslie Thompson was performing at a recent “Tea & Music” event at Columbus Public Library when, in the question period that followed, she was asked about the oddly shaped flute she was playing.

“I’m always asked that,” said Thompson, 27.

Turns out disabling injuries from a 2012 auto accident prevent Thompson from playing a conventionally shaped flute. A specialist in the Netherlands fashioned a $3,000 mouthpiece – called a “swan neck headjoint” – that enables Thompson to play.

She can’t play without it.

Thompson is not alone. All across the U.S. musicians with disabilities hunt for “adaptive gear” that will let them play. A one-armed drummer rigs a pedal so he can strike the snare drum with his foot. A bass guitarist weakened by muscular dystrophy perches the instrument on a stand so he can play without bearing its weight. A saxophone player who lost the use of an arm to a stroke found someone to build him a one-handed saxophone.

“Adaption is very, very common for every instrument,” says Andrée Martin, a flute professor at CSU’s Schwob School of Music who taught Thompson, and whose flute is adapted so she can play despite her own disability – focal dystonia, or muscle clenching, which is common among musicians.

Some 7 percent of working U.S. musicians are legally disabled, according to government data. But more than 10 times that number tell researchers of injuries that severely affect their performance. They “play hurt” for fear of losing a job.

Some, like Thompson, are concert musicians doing what they can to hold onto a career. Others are youngsters, with disabilities from birth, trying to play for the first time. Millions tuned in when CNN broadcast a story about a 10-year-old Texas girl born without a fully developed left hand, learning to play the flute.

Adapting instruments for the disabled is part of a broader, global effort to teach musicians how to move their bodies in practice and performance to increase ease and eliminate injury. It’s called “body mapping,” and it was the subject of an international conference last weekend at CSU.

In 1986, Barry McCrory went searching for a Christmas gift for his daughter Helen who was born blind and suffered from severe disabilities. The gift was too expensive for the father but the kindness of a stranger made a young girl smile.

Thompson showed promise as a high school flutist in Trenton, Ga. – winning state competitions, joining prestigious training programs – so much so that she was encouraged to study at CSU by then-director of bands Robert Rumbelow.

She enrolled in 2008, studying flute performance and playing in the top wind ensemble. Thompson, by now a junior, was returning from a flute event at Kennesaw State University when all that changed. She doesn’t remember the accident, but classmates told her a driver who ran a red light smashed into her side of her car. The impact, Thompson was told, propelled her through the driver’s side window. She landed on the other car’s hood then fell to the pavement.

Injuries to her left arm and shoulder were so severe that the first specialist who treated her, Thompson said, told her “you’ll never use your arm again.” She was encouraged to see orthopedic surgeon David Bruce, who trained at Hughston, and was practicing in Chattanooga.

After surgery and physical therapy, the prognosis was better, but progress was slow. Her arm and shoulder lacked range of motion and strength. She tried to play the flute “off and on” eight months after the accident, without success. She tried the piano, also without success, then the organ – feet only – because “one way or the other, I was going to make music.”

Back in school, she finished her degree in 2014, a bachelor’s in music education, but struggled with the flute. Professor Martin, her flute teacher, suggested the “swan neck headjoint,” and put her in touch with its maker.

Today, she’s able to practice longer, play with the Columbus Community Orchestra, and accept occasional gigs, like “Tea & Music” at the library. “I want to perform more,” Thompson says. “I’m not 100 percent, but way closer.”

What’s next is uncertain. She’s practicing to audition for graduate school in music, but knows she may not audition well enough to get in. Regardless, she says, she’ll always make music.

“If I can’t perform professionally,” she says, “I’ll be a hobbyist.”

It’s like her advice to musicians with limitations who want to play: “Don’t stop trying.”

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John Greenman publishes the travel site 36hoursincolumbus.co. He is professor of journalism emeritus at the University of Georgia and was president and publisher of the Ledger-Enquirer.