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In Conversation With Sarah Fisher

Tipping Point's Ged Robinson and Rebecca Gregson spoke to Sarah Fisher, now an Associate Musician at Sage Gateshead, about her journey through music, her greatest achievements and the challenges she has overcome.

Tell us about your earliest memory of playing music?

I started piano lessons when I was five as physiotherapy for my left hand and had lessons for eight years. Then I started drum lessons which were completely different. I started by playing one-handed, playing hats and snare both with my right hand. I only did that for two months then learned to use my left hand. I wedged a drum stick in my left hand and pushed it down on beat 2 and 4. Then I knew I could do it and gradually got more movement around the kit. My teacher was pretty amazing, he didn’t see my disability.

When did you start to consider music as a career option?

I chose GCSE music because I had an interest in it. I didn’t see it as a career, just a hobby, but over the years it was the only thing that I found interesting. I wasn’t the best student! I was playing drums every day at home and knew it was something that I wanted to do more of. I did A-level music but I kind of hated it because it was Mozart and Beethoven but I knew that it would help me get into university. So I looked at University courses in music including Sage Gateshead which was my top choice. I was going to a music Saturday club, and when my teacher left they asked me to teach a music session, so I started teaching and I was just seventeen. I was teaching kids tuned percussion and I tried to combine that with a university course, which led me to Community Music. So I applied, got an audition, and got in.

How do you find working at the Sage?

The Sage is pretty amazing. That’s why I’m still here! Because there weren’t that many students in each year we got to know everybody and it was easy to make friends, we had a flat share. Friendships developed and we really helped each other out. You’re surrounded by professional musicians. We got to shadow them and see what it’s like to experience that career. I’ve been at the Sage for 7 years, I did the Community Music Degree. I’m an ambassador for new students and I get to watch them develop. Last year I went to their graduation.

As well as studying, did you have avenues to explore your original ideas?

When I auditioned it was as a drummer, and in first year I drummed in a couple of student bands. I changed to percussion; cajon, marimaba, I kind of stopped drumming. I got back into piano when we had to do composition. This became the first piece I performed live. I was so nervous! At the same time as I picked up piano again, I developed another disability Involuntary Movement Disorder, so my left arm was moving constantly and I had no control over it. The only time it would stop was when I played piano. So I had this added challenge of walking onto the stage kind of breakdancing and everybody watching me (she laughs). And I’m just praying that it stops for the performance, and it did.

What is a key moment when you felt your music career really started making progress?

Quite recently. Two years ago I turned freelance. I graduated in 2015. I did the odd project, nothing major, but then I turned freelance and I really worked out what I wanted to do. I spent most of 2017 tavelling the country doing workshops, presentations and performing. I currently teach percussion workshops, perform as a pianist and do presentations as a community musician. I like to do a bit of everything!

What is one of your most memorable experiences as a performing musician?

When I was eighteen I auditioned in London to be in the opening for the London Olympics as a drummer. I bunked off Biology A-level and got a train to London, I didn’t tell anybody that was going, went to London, got lost, found the audition place and auditioned. A month later I returned and auditioned as a drummer, and they told me I’d been selected for the opening ceremony. It was an amazing experience, there were just under a thousand drummers. We spent three, four months rehearsing. I was doing my A-levels, and travelling back and forth to London. In the ceremony we drummed when all the chimney’s appeared and all the drummers were dressed as peasants (she laughs). They asked me to do the closing ceremony as a marshal so we had to stand with the athletes. I’d just turned 18 and I was one of the youngest drummers. I kept in touch with so many people from that. Some of the drummers carried on after as a group. I asked them to perfrom in my third year event at Sage and they came up.

You have done a lot of work inspiring others to follow their passion. What do you like about sharing you experiences with aspiring artists?

I’ve learned about being open about my disability. I tell people that there are challenges but they can be overcome. I don’t really see myself as an inspiration. I’m just doing my job as a musician. I love what I do. It’s the same with my friends, we’re just musicians sharing a passion.When I’m open about my disability it lets others know that it’s ok, that there are challenges but it doesn’t stop you. I always say in my presentations, if you have any questions just ask me because the more they know the better they understand your disability.

Identifying as someone who has a disability, how important is it to you in terms of your identity as a musician?

I have cerebral palsy and involuntary movement disorder. It’s a part of me, I’ve always had my disability from birth so I’ve never not had a disability. So everything I’ve done or learned or experienced has been with a disability so basically it’s always there. How I play is influenced by my disability but it’s not why I play. It’s part of my body. When I play piano I use five fingers on my right hand, but I can only use two on my left hand, occasionally three on a good day! I’ve only ever had this so I’ve just learned to use it. I might hear a bass part, but can’t play all of it, so I have to adapt it. People say that when you hear my pieces you wouldn’t know that it was only done with two notes.

Tell us about one aspect of your music career that you have you found especially challenging?

My speech as a teenager was really bad and I hardly said anything. So I used to communicate by playing. When I started teaching I found it really hard to say everything. So in sessions I stopped using my speech and just used the instruments to communicate. My ability is as a musician. I think because I’m so open about [my disability] and laughing, making jokes about it, this puts them at ease at around me. So they just accept me for who I am.

Who do you look to as an inspiration or a mentor?

My friends. Especially those who have other disabilities. Because they’re just doing what I’m doing. They’re just playing, teaching and sharing our music regardless of our disabilities and just doing what we’ve got to do. We imagine what it’s like for kids, seeing us play. Not just what we do as musicians but how we help other musicians develop their abilities too. When I was a child I didn’t know anyone else who had a disability, until I came to university. I think over the last few years since the London Paralympics disability has been put in the spotlight. It wasn’t just athletes it was musicians and artists, it’s definitely developed in the media.

What more do you think organisations who support music creators do to profile artists that may have similar experiences to you?

Have a conversation with them, don’t be afraid to ask questions. All the people I know with disabilities are happier when the tension disappears and there’s a conversation had about what challenges they have. Not everyone will disclose their disability, but they’ll share their challenges or what access needs they have. If you have that conversation about what adaptations to make, you then understand the person. It’s better to talk about it openly than to tiptoe around it.

Tell us more about your show Twitch

Twitch is a show that I developed. I did a similar show in my third year. It’s got three elements; music, disability and humour. The idea is it shows how having a disability isn’t a band thing. You can laugh about it, and it doesn’t hold you back. In the show I chat about my experiences, having CP, and the crazy situations that I’ve been put into because of my disability. For example when you’re at passport control and your speech disappears but your movement disorder appears (she gestures) and you can’t say anything! Or at the doctor’s and they say there’s nothing to worry about, just lie still. And you have to laugh because the reason I’m there is because I can’t lie still! Just sharing my experiences and putting a positive light on it, breaking down barriers and stopping it being a taboo subject. The music part of it is where they see me as a musician, as a solo pianist or in my band where everybody is just a musician. I did the show in 2017 here then I applied for Arts Council funding last year to do a tour of it. I was successful so it went to Liverpool and hopefully Bristol this year.

You often use the hashtag #keepsmiling on social media. What does this mean to you and why is it important?

It just kind of happened! I’ve had a lot of challenges throughout my life and for me to cope with it you just have to find the one positive in every situation and turn it into a funny or happy idea and share that with others, to know that things aren’t really as bad as they seem at first.

What are you up to now and what’s in store in the future?

I’m doing my Masters at York St John which finishes this September. I’m studying full time, planning the tour of Twitch and teaching at the Sage. I’m on the train all the time (she laughs). My home is here. I’ve been here seven years now, this is home.

Sarah continues to teach at Sage Gateshead, in parallel to her studies, freelance work and performances.

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