In about a month, we'll learn the winner of the third annual Tiny Desk Contest, the songwriting and performance contest from the creators of NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts.
Last year, the six judges received over 6,000 entries, listening for what host Bob Boilen identified as "something singular, a song and sound that felt original, and a performance that felt inspired." In the end, the judges’ decisions were unanimous: Gaelynn Lea of Duluth, Minnesota.
Gaelynn Lea is a classically trained violinist whose music, Bob Boilen wrote, “is steeped in Celtic tradition and American fiddle tunes. Her fiddle style is shaped by those traditions but also the challenges she has.”
One challenge being playing an instrument that is almost as large as she is.
Gaelynn was born with brittle bone disease, so she's quite small – she estimates about 68 pounds – and she plays her fiddle upright, like a cellist.
Winning last year's Tiny Desk Contest launched Gaelynn Lea into the national spotlight, and she's taken advantage of the attention by embarking on a months-long tour, where she can also shine her own light on issues of accessibility for performers.
In an interview for “City Lights,” host Lois Reitzes asked Lea what venues, festivals and organizations can do to better accommodate performers with disabilities. Lea said that there are two issues they need to address: “physical accessibility and programming diversity.”
In her experience, smaller venues can work to ensure that their stages, bathrooms and doorways are wheelchair accessible. For bigger venues that are already accessible, she encourages their talent bookers to ask themselves, “What’s missing from our calendar this year? Are there any artists with disabilities that we haven’t invited?”
Gaelynn also knows that those with disabilities are often an invisible minority: “At this point in time, people aren’t wrong in saying, ‘we never thought of it.’ But once you are told about it, you do have some responsibility, I think, to try to make it better.”
Gaelynn Lea performs at the Red Clay Music Foundry in Duluth, Ga. on Thursday, Feb. 2 at 7:30 p.m.