If we aren’t all different, how will we change the world asks visiting musician Elizabeth J Birch

If we weren't all different, where would innovation come from asks musician Elizabeth J Birch. She ran two workshops at The Garage for our inclusive music participants

Watching award-winning musician Elizabeth J Birch and our Inclusive Music participants weave together the haunting song Lego Ghosts at Hogwarts out of thin air was fittingly magical. 

Aided by just a mic, keyboard, various handheld percussive instruments, looping equipment, and a laptop they came up with melodies, lyrics and then recorded various sounds which Elizabeth layered.

She later did the same with members of our Inclusive Music performance company EngPol M4, helping them toss round ideas for their new track Fruit Salad Put It In The Bed.

“I’d heard both groups are very musical and used to writing songs so was really looking forward to what came out of the workshops. I don’t call myself a teacher, I aspire to learn as much [from them] as they learn [from me] and from each other.

“I don’t go in with the intent to teach people anything musical necessarily. What’s more important is those life, personal, and social skills. [Music teaches you] to listen in an ensemble, in a social dynamic, to accommodate everyone else. How to be flexible and think on the fly. To express yourself and communicate, even if it’s just in that fleeting moment. So, they’re able to go away feeling more confident.”

Elizabeth – who has Hyper Mobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, requiring her to use a wheelchair, and autism spectrum disorder – loves sharing her story and experiences to empower other disabled artists.

Describing herself as an undefined glitch, she’s known for blurring the boundaries and finding innovative ways to envision and make music. Using synthesisers, haunting vocals, and everyday objects to challenge what music is, how it’s made and who musicians are. 

Her work driving positive change in the music industry across technology, diversity, and inclusion saw her featured as one of the Mastercard Music Trailblazers ahead of this year’s BRIT Awards.

“I regard everyone as a musician as soon as they come into the room. That’s important to me because I want to prove to everyone that they can be. You don’t have to look, sound, or do things a certain way. 

“I’m very passionate about people getting opportunities. Sometimes people who have additional needs, disabilities, financial [difficulties], all manner of things, don’t get those chances.”

It’s something we touched on in our blog about our Inclusive Music performance company EngPol M4.

Like us, Elizabeth doesn’t believe in barriers. No wonder she won the Inspirational Music Leader award from Youth Music in 2023 for her inclusive community music and facilitation workshops focused round songwriting, technology, and youth voice.

“I know this sounds very Spock of me, but it’s logical that if people weren’t different, didn’t do things a different way, we’d never have innovation. We’d just be robots doing the same thing over and over. 

“There’s rumours Einstein was autistic, so we wouldn’t have his discoveries. Sometimes we have to embrace the uncomfortableness of being different in order to get something new.”

Diversity strengthens society?

“Exactly. If we shy away from diversity, we’re shutting out how we’re made and [not seeing the] full-rounded picture of what humanity is. It should be celebrated and looked into further as opposed to ‘ooh that’s a bit scary’.”

The producer and composer agreed that’s it strange this discussion still needs to be had. We may have the Equality Act 2010 legislating against discrimination, but of course it still happens.

She says: “I think a lot of people are still stuck in the medical model of disability. That there’s something wrong with the disabled person, that they need to change or do X and Y to be accepted or to belong. I think that’s horrible and twisted. 

“I think, slowly, we’re starting to move towards the social model of disability. Which is where the barriers are outside the disabled person. It’s the world that’s disabling, not the person.”

Elizabeth mentions last month’s advertisement for World Down Syndrome Day where an actress says, “You assume I can’t drink Margarita, so you don’t make me a Margarita. Therefore, I don’t drink”.

“That perfectly encapsulates what I was saying earlier about opportunities. I nearly cried watching it because it was just so perfect. You need the chance to try something to say it’s not for you. How else are you going to learn? Maybe you need some support, but we should be focusing on giving people the chance, that’s powerful.

“I think we’ve still got a while to go, which is sad to say. But with every conversation about inclusion and enacting change, I think we’ll leave a legacy for future generations.”

Elizabeth – whose workshops were made possible by the Brighter Future Fund and the Sheila Ann Day Fund via Norfolk Community Foundation – says our inclusive programmes are a positive step in the right direction.

“The performance opportunities you give groups, the stages you get them on where – as your CEO Adam said to me earlier – so often they’re pushed down, put into backrooms, or get their own stage where everyone can be like ‘oh, look at them, bless them’. It’s inspirational.

“I’m just not into that [ableism]. At the end of the day, what matters is the music that’s being made. That the person making it is putting their energy, time, creativity, expression into it. I think that’s been lost about music. It’s all become about the look or doing things a certain way.”

Was that a glimpse of the “angsty monster” Elizabeth says she was when she was younger?

“I think that applies to everybody, not just myself. We’re all the sum of our experiences and the world around us. What’s really come out of a lot of my experiences has been the fact that I’ve still done it. 

“I don’t mean to sound big-headed. What I mean by that is that I was told a lot that I wouldn’t. I went through a massive edgy teenager phase [her mum, smiling behind her, assures me she wasn’t that bad].

“I was like, ‘I’ll prove them wrong’. Then came a lot of negativity and I got majorly burnt out very quickly. So maybe don’t do that. What I’ve come to realise as I’m maturing and meeting loads of different people, with loads of different needs, and loads of different ways of working is you don’t have to prove anyone wrong. You can just be and just do.

“Find what’s expressive, how to do it in a way that’s natural to you as opposed to, you know, ‘to make music, you have to go into a music studio’… Just do it at home, use your phone, who’s stopping you?

“What’s happened in the past… While I’m an accumulation of those experiences, I’m not those experiences. I’m who I am now and I’m going to be different in five years. I’m just passionate about people embracing who they are, their authenticity, and that bleeds into your creativity.”

You’ll be able to experience Elizabeth’s creativity when she performs at The Garage on 7 June. Her second EP Kenopsia was released last year and explores challenging subjects such as loss and grief. Tickets are on sale now.

You can find out more about Elizabeth and her music on InstagramYouTubeBandcamp, Facebook and X.

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