Unleashing potential: Vancouver Adapted Music Society’s innovative approach to music inclusivity

What started with two musicians looking to find a way back into music after suffering sports-related injuries, has become a foundation through which artists of all abilities are encouraged to create music. The Vancouver Adapted Music Society is a space where adaptive technology is used to give those living with disabilities the opportunity to learn, record and perform music.

VAMS Program Manager Graeme Wyman says VAMS prioritizes helping clients by creating solutions to the physical barriers standing between artists living with disabilities and the production of music.

“It could be something as easy as raising power inputs, just having them low on the ground. Someone in a wheelchair might not be able to access those,” he points out.

An adaptive approach

Co-founded in 1988 by musicians Sam Sullivan and Dave Symington, VAMS has long relied on advances in adaptive music technology for its success. Having both experienced tetraplegia due to sports-related injuries, they founded the society with the intention of using electronic or MIDI instruments to reintegrate into the world of music.

The Vancouver Adapted Music Society works with artists like Jeff Stanfield to support their musical endeavours. | Photo courtesy of Vancouver Adapted Music Society

It is these same instruments that are adapted for VAMS programs today.

“The thing is, a lot of these solutions are fairly simple,” says Wyman.

While the studio is fully accessible to wheelchairs and mobility vehicles, a range of instruments have also been adapted for those with various abilities. With drumming, for example, the instrument can be made accessible to those unable to hold drumsticks by a Velcro attachment to wheelchair gloves. Pianos can be raised, lowered or tilted to the individual needs of their clients.

There’s also what Wyman calls a “guitar table,” which lays flat so that those who are unable to hold a standard guitar can play it.

With all their studio employees being trained audio engineers, Wyman and his colleagues’ role is often to act as assistant producers for non-verbal clients who might also be physically unable to play an instrument. During this process, the client directs the musical piece while team members like Wyman assist in recording a song’s various elements.

“We play a few samples and a client, even though they’re non-verbal, can still communicate through different technologies…I would say, ‘client X, do you like this drumbeat? Okay, no, how about this one?’” explains Wyman. “We’d find a place where we’re like, yeah, that’s great… And then we move on from there and kind of build a track.”

All about the music

According to Wyman, a common misconception about VAMS is the difference between music therapy and the work that they carry out.

“We’re not music therapists,” says Wyman, whose background is in music engineering and production.

He explains that the program focuses on a three-tiered system of music lessons, recordings and live performances, and says their emphasis is on supporting each of their artists on their musical journey.

Rachael Ransom has been working with VAMS since 2018, and has an album due out this year. Photo by Jade Weekes

Rachael Ransom has been a client of VAMS since 2018 and echoes this sentiment.

“People think ‘oh, it’s a non-profit for people with disabilities, it’s more of a charity thing’,” says Ransom. “I think the biggest thing is that music comes first here.”

Ransom, who was discovered by Dave Symington while performing in 2018, is currently in the process of recording an album with VAMS, alongside program coordinator Bryden Veinot and program assistant Noah Stolte. Ransom recalls being apprehensive about embarking on recording an album but agreed after persistent encouragement from Veinot.

“They’ve taken my songs that were just chord progressions, lyrics and melodies and turned it into something much bigger,” says Ransom. “It’s going to be out in a couple of months; that’s how persuasive they can be over there.”

Speaking on her experience in VAMS studio, Ransom says there is a culture of understanding.

“They understand disability because they work with disabled clients already,” says Ransom. “It kind of takes that awkwardness away and we can just focus on the music.”

For more information on VAMS lessons, recording sessions and live shows visit: www.vams.org

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