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One-handed violinist inspires other musicians with disabilities

Anantawan on the stage of the Camden Opera House in Camden, Maine, where he spoke at the PopTech conference.
Nick Scott/CNN
Anantawan on the stage of the Camden Opera House in Camden, Maine, where he spoke at the PopTech conference.

“Accessibility is not an act of charity,” Adrian told an audience in Boston, where he is now an orchestra conductor at the Conservatory Lab Charter School. “It’s one of lifting the ceiling of potential development so that all children can explore this world, but also possibly create new ones.”

Born in Ottawa, Canada of Thai-Chinese ethnicity, Adrian Anantawan began the violin at nine and has since established himself as a rising star in classical music. Born without a right hand, Anantawan uses a simple prosthesis he calls "the spatula" which grips the violin bow.

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter describes his sound as unique. Due to his right arm being shorter than most people, he draws the bow across the strings at an angle, rather than consistently perpendicular to the strings as is the general practice. Anantawan overcomes that by putting different pressure on his bow to put more weight on the strings, thus producing more sound. But, as Professor Lee Bartel of the University of Toronto states, "there's no music he can't play...there are no limitations with this disability."

Adrian went to the Curtis Institute of Music where he studied with Ida Kavafian and also has degrees from Yale and Harvard. Teachers have also included Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Anne-Sophie Mutter. He has performed at Carnegie Hall, the White House, the Olympic Games in Athens and Vancouver, the United Nations and for such notables as Christopher Reeve, Pope John Paul II, and the Dalai Lama.

He helped to create the Virtual Chamber Music Initiative at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehab Centre — a cross-collaborative project that develops adaptive musical instruments for use by young persons with disabilities within a chamber music setting. It was at the Holland Centre that Adrian was introduced to the Virtual Music Instrument, a device similar to a motion-controlled video gaming system that translates movement into sound, playing pre-recorded musical samples when a person activates symbols on the screen.

In a 2012 article in the Boston Globe, Anantawan said, "What accessibility is, in my mind, is raising the series of potential development for any child. It's really a collective act we have to do together. What they do within that is up to them. If they don't like playing music and want to do something else, they should. But at the same time we have to make sure that chance is there."

Anantawan has devoted his career to using adaptive technology – from prosthetic devices like his own, to sophisticated computer software such as the Virtual Music Instrument– to aid aspiring young musicians in overcoming a wide range of disabilities. By helping them make music, he believes this technology can help “reveal the inner humanity” of disabled children who struggle to express themselves through other means.