British Paraorchestra in Bahrain

This year, as part of Bahrain 200, the British Council is celebrating 200 years of friendly knowledge and understanding between Bahrain and the UK. To mark the occasion, on April 2nd, six musicians from the British Paraorchestra performed in Bahrain at the Shaikh Embrahim Center for Culture and Research. “The British Council’s work in Bahrain has been devoted to promoting diversity and inclusion in the arts for many years now through workshops, concerts and performances,” said Alan Rutt, British Council’s Country Director in Bahrain. “We have an ambitious programme of events for Bahrain 200, and the Paraorchestra performance will [introduce] the Bahraini public to some of the UK’s most talented musicians.”


The British Paraorchestra

The British Paraorchestra began in 2012, founded by conductor Charles Hazlewood with a mission to showcase disabled musicians and remove the barriers that can often exist between them and performance. It is the world's first professional ensemble for disabled musicians. Over the years, the British Paraorchestra has performed at Orchestival, headlined at the Unlimited Festival of deaf and disabled arts at the Southbank Centre, played alongside Coldplay at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics and also released a Christmas single, “True Colours”.

We caught up with Charles Hazlewood and the six musicians at Colston Hall in Bristol as they rehearsed for their Bahrain performance, and asked them a few questions.

Tom Doughty, acoustic lap slide guitarist, was laid back about the trip: “I’m easy-going so my expectations are very open at this stage in our planning [though] it will be interesting to see how our ensemble is treated [culturally].” We asked if he had found any particular barriers to performing as a disabled musician, but discovered that, for Tom, any barriers were not necessarily physical: “Apart from what I would describe as ‘unknown’ or ‘unmentioned’ factors, I am self-taught, which is not something that is appreciated by other professional orchestras!”

Harmonica player Oliver Cross concurred: “I play harmonica which the traditional orchestral world is snooty about! There is also a barrier to do with my autism and understanding how I need to work around this … I have always had trouble joining groups due to the lack of knowledge they have about my disabilities and uniqueness.” Looking ahead to Bahrain, Oliver was looking forward to sharing his experiences with others: “I would love to meet some of the Bahrainis with Asperger’s and autism who are involved in the programme.” Would the trip present any particular challenges? “Physically,” said Oliver, “it is exhausting for me to travel, and hard for autistic people to sleep and adapt to new surroundings.” However, this is not his first trip to the region. “I will never forget our tour [with the British Paraorchestra] to Qatar, performing an eclectic and outstanding repertoire with the Qatar Philharmonic.”


Stephanie West (harp), Paul Holzheer (guitar) and Tom Doughty (guitar) during rehearsals. Credit: British Paraorchestra.


For Charles Hazlewood, this orchestra is obviously dear to his heart and he believes strongly in the need to provide a platform for the masses of disabled musicians in the world to have opportunities to perform professionally like their able-bodied counterparts. We asked him how rehearsing and performing with the British Paraorchestra compared to other orchestras he’d worked with. “It is exactly the same in regard to all the musicians being high calibre,” he said, “and yet it is fundamentally different because of the way that we generate material is through a strange kind of distillation process.

“At the beginning of rehearsal, I might impose some melodic or harmonic shapes, a broad-brush stroke of musical narrative; at this point the ensemble splinters off into small groups of 3 or 4 to work up material or episodes using the core ideas. They then return into the main space and then there is a show and tell, general reaction from the orchestra, then again splintering of into different groups of 2 or 3 to work up more episodes. Then more show and tell to the rest of the orchestra and so on. Eventually we arrive at a point where we have genuinely distilled all possible permutations and bit by bit, the final musical narrative is emerging. And it is emerging as the work and the inspiration of every single person in the room. So when the Paraorchestra hit a performance, everyone owns the music that is performed on stage. This devised process is democracy in action. 

“You can’t get away from the challenges facing disabled musicians and of course by extension the Paraorchestra, principally that the music world and by this I mean concert halls are rarely configured to deal with the needs of the musicians with a disability. It is true of airports and airlines also.”

Could he describe the impact of the Paralympics on public perception of disability? “The Paralympics is in no small way the principal inspiration behind the Paraorchestra. What the Paralympics have achieved so miraculously in terms of sport and disability, we are determined should also be realisable in music with disability. That at the point of performance, just like the Paralympics, the only thing that is important is how world class it is – the fact that disabled people have created it should become irrelevant. It also needs to be placed on record that the British Paralympic Association has been the most fulsome supportive friends and partners since the inception of the Paraorchestra movement.” 

And what did he see as the ultimate goal of the Paraorchestra? “That there should be no need of a Paraorchestra anymore,” he said. “That moment will be the moment when there are brilliant musicians with disability playing a prominent role in great musical institutions the world over.”


TED Talk


Meet the Ensemble

Six of the British Paraorchestra musicians heading to Bahrain. 
Clockwise from top left: Lloyd Coleman, Adrian Lee, Oliver Cross, Stephanie West, Tom Doughty, Paul Holzherr.


OLIVER CROSS (Harmonica)

Oliver is a 19-year-old harmonica player and lives in Cambridge. He is currently a BA Photography student at the Cambridge School of Art at Anglia Ruskin University. Oliver plays in a band with his brother and other local musicians. He joined the British Paraorchestra when he was 16 and has performed with them in Qatar and in the UK. He loves breaking down musical barriers and demonstrating that the harmonica is a serious musical instrument. Oliver was born with severe talipes in both feet for which he has had a series of operations and he also has Asperger's Syndrome. In June 2016 he is involved in a music project based on the Littleport Riots Music of 1816. He’s also working on a refugee film project and a photography and multimedia project.  


TOM DOUGHTY (Acoustic Lap Slide Guitar)

Tom has played, studied and shared stages with US blues guitar master Woody Mann; Australian classical guitar maestro Craig Ogden; Indian slide guitar genius Debashish Bhattacharya; and UK pedal steel king BJ Cole. Tom had to reinvent a way to play guitar after a serious injury in 1974 left him with limited use of his hands. Frustrated at hearing music in his mind, which he could not physically produce on his instrument, Tom felt there was no other choice than to discover a route back to being a musician. Borne out of his creativity and ability to solve problems, Tom’s sensitivity of touch allows him to pull every ounce of emotion from the instrument, as if he has somehow become one with the guitar. An instantly recognisable slide guitar style, passionate vocals and a relaxed, wryly humorous line in stage patter take the audience on a unique musical journey, echoing the diversity of the family record collection. Tom plays and sings real, organic music that comes from the soul. Tom performs regularly as a solo musician and teaches lap slide guitar. He’s just finished his fifth album, which is released on 1st May 2016.



Paul has been playing guitar since the age of 12. He is self-taught and he likes to play a variety of styles especially where the nylon string guitar is concerned; he is a particular fan of the flamenco style. He used to play mostly popular music in Brighton, UK but after an unfortunate accident he was left paralysed and in a wheelchair. However, his injury has not deprived him of the use of his hands. He sometimes rues that fact that he cannot assume the correct playing posture but, looking around, he sees the numerous examples of musicians who have made it work for them – Django Reinhardt had only two good fingers on his fretting hand. He plays with an orchestra of plucked instruments in which he is the only one with a physical handicap. He does sometimes come up against obstacles like access to the stage or access to vehicles. This is where the Paraorchestra is a shining light with a real feeling of solidarity within it.



A harper, singer and composer, Steph has a love of dancing rhythms, vivid chords and a free flowing melody. You may hear her performing solo, playing in a variety of bands and projects, from the British Paraorchestra to Emily and the Tunesmiths. Steph also teaches harp and traditional music, and is involved with the Irish and English folk and harp communities in the south east of England. She helps run youth folk arts project Shooting Roots, which is 21 this year. In 2012 Steph joined the British Paraorchestra, performing with them at the Paralympics Closing Ceremony and the Queen’s Speech. Also in 2012 the Paraorchestra travelled and performed in Qatar at the Katara Opera House. In the same year Steph also wrote and released an EP, The Mermaid. She’s slowly working on new material for an album.



Born in South Wales, Lloyd studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music until July 2014. He is now developing a freelance career in writing and performing as a clarinettist. Many leading ensembles including the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Aurora Orchestra, Sacconi Quarter, Endymion, New London Chamber Ensemble, Hermes Experiment and the National Youth Wind Orchestra of Wales have performed his music. As a clarinettist, Lloyd began his orchestral training in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Nowadays, he complements his writing commitments with frequent performances of new music written by other composers. Since 2012, he has been a member of the groundbreaking British Paraorchestra, who will perform a new piece by Lloyd in July 2015. Alongside his music making, Lloyd holds an interest in broadcasting about the subject. He is the creator of Taking Notes, an online music show in which he interviews and promotes fellow young musicians. Encouraged and praised for his natural style of delivery, Lloyd continues to expand its format and audience. 



Adrian is a composer, music director, creative arts facilitator, multi-instrumentalist and music publisher. In 2008 he formed his own publishing company, Musicotopia, through which he provides media composition and production services. His output comprises over 60 scores for TV, theatre, radio, film, dance and music theatre. Commissions include music scores for the UK’s principal broadcasters’ theatre companies. His scores for television include commissions broadcast by BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5, NatGeo and Animal Planet. He has composed music for the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Since the early 1990s he has worked with various community and education-based creative arts projects designed to integrate the compositional and performance input of participants of all ages and abilities. These include The Odyssey, a devised music-theatre work that combined the creative contribution of over 120 school children and community gamelan ensemble, commissioned by Norfolk Education Authority. Adrian’s work has been profoundly influenced by gamelan (the music of Java, Bali and Malaysia), which he was introduced to in 1979. His compositions for gamelan have been performed in major concert venues in the UK, Europe and South-east Asia.



Following his studies at Christ’s Hospital and Oxford University, Charles won first prize at the European Broadcasting Union Conducting Competition in Lisbon in 1995. He made his BBC Proms conducting debut in August 2006, with the BBC Concert Orchestra; simultaneously presenting the concert live from the stage for TV. He now guest-conducts many of the world’s leading orchestras, including the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Gothenburg and Malmo Symphonies in Sweden, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Philharmonia in London. His eclecticism defies convention; he has conducted over 100 orchestral world premieres, worked with the rawest new South African vocal talent, and collaborated with clog dancers, bell ringers, Grime MCs, drum and bass producers and pop artist; most recently Professor Green and Labrinth. In 2012 Hazlewood launched the British Paraorchestra, the first ensemble of its kind in the world. The Paraorchestra has two objectives: to create a platform for highly talented musicians with disability, and to change the perspectives of the world, just as the Paralympic movement has in sport.