CFA Student Stages a One-of-a-Kind Concert Drawing on His Life as a Musician with a Disability
Music Through the Scope of Disability will be performed at the Tsai Performance Center December 1
Like some of history’s greatest music, Spencer Hart-Thompson’s songs are born out of intense emotional pain. But his music is also inspired by intense physical pain.
“One of my songs is called ‘Hurts to Love,’ and it’s about being in a relationship as a person with a pain-related disability,” he says. “When I’m hurting emotionally, there is an impact on my pain on that day. So it’s not a metaphor.”
When he was 16, Hart-Thompson (CFA’24), now a vocal student in the College of Fine Arts School of Music, was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), a physical and psychiatric disorder that causes chronic and often spontaneous pain. Undaunted, he began to record an album, then embarked on a long-term research project aiming to expand accessibility and accommodations for those with disabilities, and finally, conceived a hybrid concert/lecture, Music Through the Scope of Disability. The latter includes music from his album along with information and insight on disability and the expanding area of accessibility services and reflections on his own experiences. He’ll perform the show Friday, December 1, at the Tsai Performance Center at 7 pm.
While many of the things Hart-Thompson writes about are unique to people with CRPS or other disabilities, some are more universal, experiences nearly anyone can relate to, including getting dumped.
“This music is about grieving a relationship,” he says about his first album, which he began working on following a breakup freshman year. Although the forthcoming album will have a cast of musicians behind him, Hart-Thompson’s music is acoustic and dressed down at heart, with some songs nodding to folk pop, others to the campfire intimacy of indie Americana. “The [songwriting] process created these small [pain] flare-ups,” he says, “and…I had to come to terms with the fact that if I’m going to work on this, I’m going to have to put myself in an emotionally vulnerable place, and then work through it.”
So began the long road to Music Through the Scope of Disability—with Hart-Thompson alone with his music, learning to play through the pain. As the songwriting became more defined and an album began to form, he began thinking more critically about the music-making process for someone like him: a singer-songwriter, music student, and person with a disability.
“As I was adapting, I started doing research behind the music and I figured out that there was an interesting niche that is not really talked about very much, which is disabled music-making,” Hart-Thompson says. Gareth Dylan Smith, a CFA assistant professor of music and music education, and Ruth Debrot, a CFA lecturer in music education, were his mentors as he developed his research into a more formal paper of the same title.
“[Dr. Smith] started saying, let’s make an article about the music-making process and it eventually became, let’s make an article about the music-making process through the scope of disability, and I loved the idea of bringing those two together,” Hart-Thompson says. “There really isn’t a lot of research out there.”
The research paper he wound up creating contains recommendations for academic accommodations that could benefit a music student with disabilities and includes student- and instructor-oriented perspectives. “Instructors have to be informed, and they have to have the right tools to be able to accommodate,” Hart-Thompson says. “Accommodations are not necessarily always academic or institutional. They’re also a form of communication, this mentality in the classroom.”
As the paper neared completion, Hart-Thompson felt something was missing—as a longtime musician and performer, he wanted to demonstrate his research, make it personal, and incorporate the music he’d been working on for several years. The performance, he says, is “the pinnacle of the [research] project.”
To bring his concept to life, he enlisted the help of Project Action after learning about the program. Part of Innovate@BU, a University-wide project incubator initiative, Project Action provides coaching, funding, and other resources to students looking to bring their ideas to life.
“I applied and I said that I really wanted to do this performance, but I didn’t have the finances for it… I was paired with Katie Quigley Mellor, and she’s just been amazing in helping me get this project to the next level,” Hart-Thompson says.
“Spencer is a driven, hardworking student who has a clear vision for the world he would like to create,” says Quigley Mellor, Innovate@BU program director, social entrepreneurship. “The work that Spencer is doing to disrupt the current status quo for live musical performances is the type of impact-driven work that Innovate@BU is excited to support.”
Funding from Project Action was supplemented by the Provost’s Scholars Award, CFA’s Clare Hodgson Meeker Fellowship, an Inclusion Catalyst Award from BU D&I, an Interdisciplinary Arts Programming Grant from the BU Arts Initiative. The Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome Association, a nonprofit that supports people with CRPS, pitched in to make a live recording of the performance.
As for the show itself, Hart-Thompson compares the hour-long concert to a “less funny” Bo Burnham comedy special based on the singer/comedian’s predilection for abruptly switching gears from funny to sober and singing to stand-up. There won’t be much comedy in Music Through the Scope of Disability—Hart-Thompson wants to use most of his speaking time to spread awareness and promote his accessibility research, which includes new and adapted accessibility resources and protocols that he himself has tested. Meanwhile, his musical performance will be a demonstration of his experiences with CRPS and an autobiographical throughline that ties the whole show together.
“I’m going to be sitting the whole time, because I’m a person with a disability—it’s the default way that we think about musicians, so we need to start evaluating the standard and ask, why can’t it be different?” he says. Hart-Thompson often uses mobility aids, such as arm braces or a wheelchair. “For me, music-making is painful, but existence is painful. I will always consistently experience pain, but I won’t necessarily notice it, because there’s a flow state that you get into when you’re performing.
“I’ll just start existing inside of the music as opposed to existing inside of my body.”
Catch Spencer Hart-Thompson’s Music Through the Scope of Disability: A Social Awareness Performance on Friday, December 1, 7 to 8 pm, at the Tsai Performance Center. The event is free and open to the public. Register here.