David Nabb showcases one-handed sax at London’s House of Lords

House of Lords in Westminster Palace, London.

EDITOR’S NOTE: David Nabb, professor of music and performing arts at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, performed in January at House of Lords in Westminster Palace, London.
He was invited by the One-Handed Musical Instrument Trust in England. Nabb wrote the following, highlighting his trip, the performance and his musical career that includes playing his one-handed saxophone – called the “toggle-key saxophone.”


On Nov. 25, 2015, a message in my inbox from One-Handed Musical Instrument Trust in England asked if I was interested in performing on my saxophone at the House of Lords in Westminster Palace, London.

OHMI is a nonprofit institution in England dedicated to developing music-making opportunities for persons with physical disabilities. I re-read the email and swallowed my initial reaction of “Who me? Heck yes!” I relaxed as best I could and wrote a controlled reply indicating I was interested, but I would need help with the costs. The date of the performance was set for Jan. 13, the first Wednesday of spring 2016 semester classes at UNK.

Flash back to 2000.

Fifteen years before this invitation arrived I lay in a hospital bed unable to sit up, walk or speak properly. I was 37 years old, and a major stroke paralyzed half my body. My musical performance career was in peril.

David-Nabb-2Having had a stroke, how could I ever make music again?

The fingers on my left hand could not move at all. I had a young wife and two boys ages 7 and 4 at home who relied on me. A horrifying question stared me in the face: “How can I ever again support my family as a musician if I have only one functional hand?”

I understand that not everyone shares the depth of my interest in music. For me, music making has always been more than an interesting pass time or fun activity. Of course I enjoy it, but music making is my profession, and it’s my passion. It was through music that I met my wife. Making music is what I did with my kids every night after supper time. Each of my close friends was actively involved in music. Both professionally and personally, life was built around music. It was imperative for me to return to teaching and making music.

The solution to my professional and deeply personal musical dilemma did not come easily. In the end, Kearney native Jeff Stelling designed, engineered and built an extraordinary one-handed saxophone – called the “toggle-key saxophone” – that allowed to me return to my professional life. The story of the instrument’s development is long. Suffice it to say that three years after the onset of my paralysis, I was once again making music, but now on a fine professional quality one-handed saxophone.

Stelling’s toggle-key saxophone is so elegantly engineered that it allows me to play the same music with one hand that I formerly played with a two-handed conventional saxophone. In fact, the toggle-key saxophone has won some impressive recognition. In 2013, it won the first-ever international competition for one-handed musical instruments sponsored by OHMI.

Untold numbers of musicians have acquired disabilities that jeopardized their musical careers. Most people know that Beethoven became deaf. That happened more than 200 year ago. Today there are many, many disabled musicians, including people such as Evelyn Glennie, the world’s foremost percussion soloist, who is deaf; Felix Kleiser, born with no arms and a world-class French horn player; Adrian Anantawan, violinist born with no right hand; and thousands of others.

Since few resources exist for disabled musicians, in the past 15 years I have devoted my professional life to assisting other musicians with disabilities. I’m in a good position to do this since I have a first-hand understanding of the impact an adapted musical instrument has.

Flash forward to 2015

Any musician would be thrilled with the chance to perform at Westminster Palace. It represents a venue of historical and cultural significance. Given my health history, I thought this type of opportunity would never be possible for me.

When I received the invitation, I knew nothing about the House of Lords other than what I could remember from Mr. Smith’s 1979 Comparative Government class at Davenport (Iowa) West High School that I sat in every day at 7 a.m. From that course, I still recalled that the UK has two houses of government, an elected “House of Commons” and a “House of Lords” where the membership was limited to British citizens who carried the title “Lord.” How one becomes a Lord is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that it relies to some degree on inherited wealth and status.

Eventually, all the details for the trip were worked out. I arrived at my hotel on Sunday morning, and I was so tired I closed the curtains and slept in my room all day. The event was not until Wednesday. I arrived a few days early to adjust to the time change as much as possible.

Monday morning, I walked to a well-known music store 15 minutes from the hotel, rented a practice room and played saxophone for 3 hours. It was important to do this, because immediately before playing at the House of Lords I would have little or no opportunity to prepare my instrument or think about what to play. There would be no tuning note, no time to blow warm air through the horn. Someone would just say “Here’s David” and I would be “on.” I also needed to play because during such a long trip, my instrument could have been damaged or knocked out of adjustment. Any mechanical issue with the saxophone would create serious problems for me.

David Nabb visits with One-Handed Musical Instrument Trust ambassador Nicholas McCarthy in London. (Photo courtesy/Huew Meredith)
David Nabb visits with One-Handed Musical Instrument Trust ambassador Nicholas McCarthy in London. (Photo courtesy/Huew Meredith)

Professional musicians as a rule are deadly serious about performing. In high school, a friend once told me, “Good musicians don’t have to practice. You should be able to just play.” That philosophy simply does not apply to any of the professionals I know. To illustrate, many professionals become very conscious of potential hazards to their health near a performance. I learned this from an opera singer who was offended by my cough enough to chase me out of an elevator while screaming obscenities in my direction in 1987. Wednesday’s appearance was very important, and I certainly felt I should take every precaution to ensure my best effort. I therefore practiced every day.

Monday night I went to the Royal Opera House in a district called Covent Garden to see a production of the opera “Tosca.” I don’t often get a chance to see professional productions, so when I travel I make a point of taking advantage of the opportunities a city presents. The show was terrific in all respects. As an instrumental musician, I especially appreciated the orchestra. My seat was very far in the back – fifth balcony level – but the distance did not diminish the wonderful sonorous effects the winds were producing.

Tuesday I woke up fairly early and ate breakfast when the hotel restaurant opened at 6:30 a.m. I chose a seat looking out into the now empty street. It was still quite dark outside as I munched away at my bread and jam. Suddenly I was surprised to see an animal about the size of a cat or dog trot across the field of view of my window. Actually the size was like a cat, but it trotted and loped like a dog. The color looked red and my initial reaction was “It’s a fox.” But the idea seemed absurd and I quickly dismissed it. Then I remembered a British friend telling me about the growing fox population in London. I am now convinced it was one of the famous London foxes.

Again, I practiced about three hours at the music store. Everything felt good, just as it should the day before a performance. I had number of reeds ready I could choose from the next day. I was prepared to play a Victor Young ballad called “When I Fall in Love” at the event the following day, and of course I played through that a few times, reviewing especially the harmonies and voice leading ideas. That took about an hour. The rest of my time was spent playing and studying material for performances I had in the upcoming months. I was already hard at work studying some difficult music for a performance I have coming up in July, for example.

In the afternoon, I made a pilgrimage to the British Museum. The British Museum can be compared in scope to the Smithsonian Museums in the U.S. The museum has enormous collections of things from all over the UK. Even more interesting to me are the historical materials collected from places formerly part of the British Empire, such as India, Egypt, and Hong Kong. The Museum houses hundreds of statues and mummies from Egypt (including the Rosetta Stone,) mosaics from ancient Greece, artworks and pottery from India and China. Museums are always of great interest to me, so this was a special treat.

David Nabb, left, with Stephen Hetherington, director of the One Handed Musical Trust.
David Nabb, left, with Stephen Hetherington, director of the One Handed Musical Trust.

Performance Day

Wednesday dawned. I ate early and practiced my instrument at the store, but for only an hour this time. I felt ready to play. At 12:15 p.m. I met two staff members of OHMI for lunch near my hotel, and at 1 p.m. we shared a taxi to Westminster. The cab ride took about 30 minutes.

None of us knew where the “Black Rods Entrance” was, so the cab driver asked a policeman, and we were dropped off near a black iron gate, where a policeman with the traditional “Bobby” helmet checked our identification and invitations. We entered the building, first into a security room where our coats and my saxophone were x-rayed. At that point we were met by a gentleman in a tuxedo and led to the room where the event was to take place.

Of course nothing in the room was set up yet (that’s why we were there,) so OHMI staff began organizing the event, moving chairs, putting out literature about OHMI’s work, setting up the lectern, microphone, etc. while I put my instrument together and played a couple notes.

The most interesting thing about the room was the view out of the windows. It looked out at the Thames river, with London Bridge and many of London’s most famous landmarks in plain sight. I hid my saxophone in a corner out of the way so I could quickly pick it up and play on command. Somebody explained that John Harle would introduce me. Harle is one of Britain’s best-known saxophonists.

The room was not especially large, but big enough to hold about 150 people comfortably. I told myself that it would be just like playing at the Holiday Inn in Kearney. That idea helped me relax. Indeed with the carpeted floor, tables and chairs the acoustics were nearly identical to places I played many times before. Gradually more and more people arrived, some were friends from OHMI, others were there representing various organizations interested in musical opportunities for people with disabilities.

Shortly before the event was scheduled to begin, Harle pulled me aside and talked me through his introduction. He seemed nervous. This event was important to everyone there, and gradually I began to realize that so many of the people here were relying on me to play well, in a way that is quite different from playing a solo recital or jazz in a club somewhere.

Normally when I play the only thing at stake is my own reputation, but today I represented all disabled people everywhere, and in particular OHMI and its interests, as they made their pitch to wealthy donors and Lords of Parliament. This idea changed my perspective considerably. Fortunately I had no time to think about it. After a couple speeches, it was time for me to play, and I walked up the on stage and said a couple words into the microphone.

“Thank you for welcoming me here today. I would like to say a few words about musical instruments adapted for disabled players. People often say, ‘Your saxophone is very impressive. But aren’t adapted musical instruments expensive?’ Sure they are. An instrument like mine is worth about $20,000. That’s a lot of money. But let’s think about it for a moment. A good violin is at least $20,000, or possibly much, much more. A professional bassoon is at least $30,000. A good piano may be $60,000. Musical instruments are expensive.

House-of-Lords-ChamberLet’s consider the situation further. Without this saxophone, I would be sitting at home unable to work, collecting disability insurance and a Social Security check. This instrument has enabled me to return to work. In the 15 years since my stroke, I have earned nearly $1 million dollars in salary from my university, and I have paid more than $100,000 in income tax and social security premiums to Uncle Sam. I think those numbers are good enough to encourage even the staunchest conservative to consider my saxophone a bargain.”

I was well prepared, and it went just as it had in practice. There were no surprises, except possibly the audience’s warm reception. I took a little bow, walked off the stage and shook Harle’s hand. From here on I could just relax and enjoy myself.

Very quickly someone told me that I would have a chance to observe the House of Lords in active debate, a privilege afforded only to those who have a personal escort from a Lord. I said I would like that very much.

At 5 p.m. Lord David Lipsey took me through Westminster to the debate chamber of the House of Lords. I don’t remember much about the walk to the chamber except that we walked through something he called the “Library,” then down a stairwell with a wall painted with coats of arms of members of the House of Lords. “Where is yours?” I asked. Lord Lipsey answered, “I don’t have one. It costs $4,000 to research the coat of arms and another $4,000 to have it designed.”

Apparently, even some of England’s Lords live on a budget.

The House of Lords’ chamber looked to me much like the House of Commons as I have seen it on TV. Members sit on long benches facing each other. Walls are covered in beautifully grained wood, and all the way around the chamber are coat of arms of all the former monarchs of England. On the far side from where I sat was a huge gilded throne where the current reigning king or queen would sit if they chose to attend.

During my brief observation, the Lords discussed some points of order pertaining to the Lords relative to the House of Commons. I didn’t understand it at all.

By this point, the magnitude of the recovery/rebuilding/re-invention of my career was overwhelming me a bit. For the first time in 15 years I began to feel as if the twist of fate started by my stroke was coming full circle.

After a dinner with a good friend and his family, I was back in my hotel packing my bags to go home. Eighteen hours later I was at UNK, standing in front of my Music History class.

I did my best to apologize and tried to look sad for missing two days of class, but my heart felt inspired and refreshed for the new semester.