We talk to the inspirational music maker, creator and disability advocate, Elizabeth J Birch, who enjoyed a big win at this year’s Youth Music Awards
Dismantling barriers to making music is what Elizabeth J Birch does on the daily. A talented instrumentalist, music technician and vocalist, Elizabeth is striving to give all young people unfettered access to music. While the music industry isn’t famed for its inclusivity, it’s slowly improving thanks to change makers and campaigners like Elizabeth committed to boosting accessibility and opportunity.
Winning the Inspirational Leader Award at the Youth Music Awards earlier in the year was a complete surprise to Elizabeth but probably not a shock to anyone who’s familiar with her work. She has paved the way for countless young disabled musicians by breaking down barriers and boosting their self-belief. She’s worked with Midlands Arts Centre’s inclusive band Switch as well as BBC Introducing and has chaired panel discussions around access to music at numerous conferences.
She has developed an impressive knowledge of music technology which she shares with aspiring musicians through her unique workshops both online and in person. Of the award, Elizabeth says: “Awards and recognition aren’t why I do it – I’m perfectly satisfied if I’m not recognised but I guess it’s confirmation that others see what I do which is really nice.” The judging panel included singer-songwriter and Hits Radio UK presenter Fleur East, Chicken Shop Date star and youth services advocate Amelia Dimoldenberg, singer and BRIT-nominated Rising Star Joy Crookes and mixed media visual artist Kojey Radical.
Elizabeth’s achievements are even more impressive when you learn that she’s dealing with her own challenges that mean her life is complicated. Having always been into music and movement as a child, Elizabeth was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) while still at primary school which meant that physical activity including dance had to stop. EDS is a joint hypermobility syndrome that causes fatigue, pain and dislocations meaning Elizabeth had to rely on mobility aids initially and now uses a wheelchair.
Having benefitted from community projects as a youngster that made her realise music was a viable career path, Elizabeth says: “Over time I wanted to impact others in the same way. I want to see equal opportunity to be creative and to be included. I’m fortunate to be where I am because organisations took a chance on me and I’m keen to do that for others.”
Elizabeth launched her workshops during lockdown, so they were online at first which proved popular not least because the online space appeals to a lot of people for whom access to venues is a problem. However, once lockdown was eased and in-person workshops were an option, Elizabeth found the prospect daunting as she’d never delivered a face-to-face session. To add to the pressure, Elizabeth has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) which affects her socially.
While it’s not easy, Elizabeth has overcome the awkwardness to deliver inspiring workshops that make a big impact on young budding musicians’ lives. In fact, Elizabeth says that her biggest success is the young people she’s worked with. She explains: The thought of how their lives have changed and improved is something that keeps me motivated.”
Elizabeth’s ambitions include making more of her own music but also to keep working towards inclusivity, equity and open mindedness. She says: “How music is made and who is making it currently is such a narrow viewpoint.” She wants people thinking more about access too.
“There are big challenges with grass roots events and venues. There are literally venues a disabled person cannot get into and outdoor events on grass are impossible in a wheelchair. It’s improving slowly.” Elizabeth hopes that one day everyone will be included in the creative space both physically and emotionally.