Local Musician Redefining 'Disability'

Jul 23, 2015

The Note-Ables performing at The Nugget in Sparks on July 20. Tony Martin, far left, is lead vocalist. He's been with the group since 2003.
Credit Julia Ritchey

  Artown hosts the Biggest Little Music Festival this Sunday at Wingfield Park in downtown Reno, a day-long concert series with musicians of all ages and abilities. Longtime performing group The Note-Ables will be appearing for their third year. Reno Public Radio’s Julia Ritchey introduces us to one of the band’s star members.

At a gig earlier this week in Sparks, The Note-Ables played the opening bars to the popular bluegrass standard “Wagon Wheel” as singer Tony Martin tapped his foot ready to belt the first few lines.

Martin has been with the Note-Ables since its founding in 2003. He sings and plays guitar and is learning the bass, too.

“I started learning how to play guitar for my dad ever since I was 12 or 17," says Martin. "(What) I like about guitar is my dad was a guitar player.”

Martin has Craniometaphyseal dysplasia, an abnormal thickening of the bone that has affected him physically and mentally. Like his fellow bandmates, he has learned to use music as a way to express himself and connect to people facing their own disabilities.

To see him on stage now is to see a seasoned pro, but his mom Jeanette recalls a time when he wasn’t as confident.

“He was was very, not clingy, but he liked life to be very set,” says Jeanette. “He didn’t like to do anything unusual, he didn’t like to try new things. The thought of moving out on his own petrified him.”

Manal Toppozadah is founder of the Note-ables Music Therapy Services. She started the program 12 years ago to give people with disabilities an artistic outlet.

“One of our core values is including people in the community and giving them opportunities for expressing themselves, and through that to become as independent and empowered as possible,” she said. 

She says the program is based on an independent living model. For Martin, this means he’s expected to remember his rehearsal schedule, dress formally for concerts and arrange his own transportation to and from gigs.

“I think that progression that we’ve seen in Tony both as a musician and as a individual, we’ve really seen his confidence blossom,” says Toppozada.

Now 36, Martin lives in his own apartment, works at a local thrift store and listens to music in his free time. He can encyclopedically list a few of his favorite songs and the artists who perform them.

“Stray Cats ‘Rock this Town,’ we also like to play ‘What I Like About You’ by the Romantics — that’s an 80s song — and we also like to play ‘Ho Hey’ by The Lumineers,” says Martin. 

The Note-Ables touring band has nine members, but the organization it’s part of now serves 600 people each year throughout the Truckee Meadows.

Toppozada says one of the most common refrains she hears from people after a Note-Ables performance is that they didn't expect them to sound so good.

“There are so many stereotypes about the limitations of people with disabilities and how they don’t really have much to offer, and music is such a perfect vehicle to show the world what people with disabilities can do,” says Toppozadah.

The Note-Ables will continue to defy expectations this weekend at the Biggest Little Music Festival, which will feature 11 local bands and more than 50 members from other music therapy programs.

Of course, Tony Martin says the part he looks forward to most is the applause at the end. 

For the full line-up of bands performing this Sunday at the Biggest Little Music Festival, click here