Steph West is an experienced harp player who has worked with the British Paraorchestra; a Bristol-based ensemble centred around disabled musicians. What fascinates her about playing in RNS Moves is the way disabled musicians integrate fully with non-disabled musicians from Royal Northern Sinfonia.
“I love working with musicians who are just so brilliant. And they’re very generous, which is great,” says Steph.
As a child, she wanted to play the piano, but her mum was not keen on Steph playing instruments that required the use of two hands. This is because Steph was born with Macrodactyly, which in Greek means ‘big finger’. The condition results in toes or fingers being abnormally large due to the overgrowth of the underlying bone, nerve and soft tissue.
“Mum directed me to play the violin, but I still really wanted to play the piano. Eventually I ended up learning the harp when I was at uni. It was one of those lucky chance things. I was like, ‘no, this is my instrument’.”
During her music degree at Birmingham University, a love of playing folk music blossomed, and crucially she was able to hire a harp. She played with her right hand on top to begin with, but soon realised she needed to swap her hands. Now, all Steph’s instruments are commissioned specifically for her, making the best use of Steph’s hands as they are.
“Another way that I developed my lever harp skills was learning to play jazz harp with the team who created the United Kingdom Harp Association (UKHA) Wild Strings Jazz & Pop Harp Festival in 2018. The challenge of fast jazz chords and managing lots of enharmonic spelling on the fly has been a massive help in underpinning my chromatic skills.”
Since 2012, Steph’s worked with the British Paraorchestra.
“In a way, they’ve been my orchestral training. My skill set combines classical stuff I did as a younger person, ensemble work and elements as a folk, ear and improvising musician,” she says. “I’m a marriage of all those things with stubbornness and tenacity.”
An invitation from Clarence Adoo MBE brought Steph into contact with RNS Moves in 2019. She realised she enjoyed chamber music even more than orchestral music. RNS Moves enables Steph to be a valued part of a chamber ensemble, honing musical skills she did not focus on in previous settings. But the ensemble means she’s learning to overcome particular challenges.
“In my experience, the biggest crunch point is always when you put two different methods side-by-side. One is working from this incredibly efficient map that is notation. And the other is the method of memorising and improvising,” says Steph. “Music works in different ways in your mind with these two different paths and sometimes when you try and marry them up, it’s really tricky.”
“Whenever you ask someone to step out of their main method into another, it’s really scary. Think about a blind person memorising the score, which is hard as they’re not designed to be memorised. Or you’ve got orchestral musicians whose whole world has been built around interpreting the score and you’re asking them to improvise for the first time. Props to anybody who manages to cross that divide from either side.”
Steph is dyslexic. So, reading the score presents even more difficulties. She admits this is not always talked openly about. Working here at Sage Gateshead, she learned some RNS orchestra members are also dyslexic. Overcoming some of the stigma she felt has lifted another barrier to fulfilling her musical ambitions.
“I just might have to do it a different way,” she says.
Through the work of RNS Moves, she hopes the audiences see a demonstration of inclusion, “which truly matters.”
“Quite often, if you’re disabled, then you’re invisible one way or another,” Steph says. “I hope some of the audience can see themselves on stage, seeing that maybe there’s a way into any type of music for them.”