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Michigan violinist advocates for fellow young artists with disabilities

Violinist Julia LaGrand
From the Top
Violinist Julia LaGrand

Grand Rapids native Julia LaGrand has spearheaded programming with From the Top for classical musicians who have disabilities.

This week, From the Top is presenting a new initiative for musicians with disabilities, including a special episode of the program and multiple online panel discussions.

It's the brainchild of violinist Julia LaGrand, an 18-year-old Grand Rapids native who is blind.

Aftershe appeared on From the Top in 2021, LaGrand approached the show's producers and proposed a collaborative effort to advocate for musicians with disabilities.

"I'd like to raise awareness and expectations for musicians who happen to have disabilities," she said.

The producers agreed

From the Top is also hosting multiple virtual events in April for young classical musicians with disabilities or who are neurodivergent.

LaGrand is the guest host of this week's episode of From the Top with regular host Peter Dugan. She also performs on the program along with four other musicians who have disabilities or are neurodivergent.

The episode includes LaGrand's interview with fellow violinist Itzhak Perlman, who had polio as a child and now performs while seated.

Listen to the episode featuring Julia on demand HERE.

The episode will also be broadcast on Classical IPR Friday, March 31 at 5 p.m. and Saturday, April 1 at 12 p.m.

In April, From the Top and its Learning and Media Lab are partnering with the Kennedy Center's Office of Accessibility and VSA for two nights of virtual programming.

On Monday, April 3 at 7 p.m. Eastern, Julia LaGrand will facilitate a public conversation with musicians Adrian Anatowan and Cristina Jones. The panelists will discuss how they have navigated their own careers, how disabled musicians can take the lead in crafting their own narratives, and how to make disability disclosures and request accommodations. This event is open to the public.

Then, on Tuesday, April 4 at 7 p.m., young disabled and/or neurodivergent musicians are invited to discuss the themes of the previous panel in more detail.

Communications accommodations including ASL, CART and recording will be available for both events. Advance registration is required.

LaGrand says she hopes this programming will show audiences and participants what “disability joy” can look like, while understanding that disabled musicians do not need their musicianship to be viewed through an ableist lens.

Violinist Julia LaGrand records in IPR's Studio A and her service dog Otto lies at her feet
Violinist Julia LaGrand records in IPR's Studio A and her service dog Otto lies at her feet

LaGrand visited IPR's Studio A last August, ahead of her featured performance with the Baroque on Beaver Festival Orchestra. She was the Festival's first-ever Young Soloist Competition winner.

LaGrand, who is an avid Braille reader and has won national competitions for her Braille reading, told IPR that she doesn't use Braille music very often.

"Braille music is more descriptive, whereas print music is more spatial," she explained. She likened Braille music to directions on Google maps and print music to looking at the map itself.

LaGrand also brought her service dog Otto to the recording session at IPR.

She told IPR that Otto is relatively indifferent to her violin playing, but he is excited when she puts her instrument away because it means she can give him her full attention.

Click HERE to listen to her interview with IPR, including why Otto doesn't come onstage with her for live performances.

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.