Gaelynn Lea talks violin, disability rights; but not always at the same time

Oct 30, 2017

NPR's 2016 Tiny Desk Contest Winner Gaelynn Lea was in Rochester this weekend for a performance at Nazareth College. She never thought she would be a performer full time. Which is a funny thought to come from someone who in the last year had 200 shows in 39 states and six different countries.

Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, Lea is a violin player but also uses the platform she’s been given to talk about disability rights.

Music has been in her life since she was young. Her mother is choir director and together her parents ran a dinner theater in Duluth, Minnesota.

But it wasn’t until fourth grade when she first saw an orchestra and decided she wanted to play the cello. When the cello wasn’t a possibility based on her size, her teacher helped her learn the violin in the style of a cello.

As a music teacher herself, Lea said she's heard many stories from students who got negative reinforcement from parents and teachers while learning music.

"I don’t think it’s a teacher’s job to discourage or put up a barrier to music," Lea says. "I think it’s a teacher’s job to just creatively or just in general be supportive, and allow people to explore."

Some of the best musicians aren’t classically trained, Lea says and that’s how creatives solutions are born.

"That’s what innovation is, right? You're not necessarily doing it the same way that it’s always been done," she says. "And I think that it’s important to remember as a teacher that, even if the kid is five and you can't really visualize that for them, that it’s not really your role to not encourage them."

In 2013, Lea says she had an epiphany after a string of jobs that were alright but nothing she was passionate about. She knew music was supposed to be her career, not necessarily performance, but take some form in her everyday life.

One issue she says, about being a performer with disabilities, is venue and stage access. Many aren’t well equipped to handle her needs.

"If I was a little kid with a disability going to shows and I saw someone with a wheelchair having to be lifted on the stage - that just doesn’t send a super positive message about like, we want you to be here, we want you to perform here," Lea says.

Lea now makes it a point to not play venues that aren’t accessible to guests with special needs. As a musician and disability rights advocate, Lea says she evaluates the intersection of these positions regularly. And while they absolutely coexist, she is first and foremost a musician.

"For me I separate them mentally," she says. "So I know I'm doing music for music's sake and disability rights for a bigger purpose."

Gaelynn Lea is working on her third album now, her first with a full band, due sometime in 2018.