UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 18 Spring 24 Library
Molly Joyce playing her vintage toy organ. Image by Shervin Lainez.
Music & Student Spotlight

Molly Joyce

Molly Joyce used one of the greatest challenges of her life to catapult a journey into music that has taken her places she could never have imagined before. 

Joyce dabbled in music as a young girl, taking violin lessons at her mother's request. Then, when she was seven years old, a severe car accident badly damaged her left hand, changing the course of her life and leading her on a remarkable journey of musical discovery and personal growth. Doctors initially feared that they could not save the hand. While they were successful in doing so after several surgeries, Joyce had lost the dexterity that many musicians rely on to make their art. It was hard to imagine a life as a performer.

That all changed because of a toy in the corner of her room – a toy organ she had brought on eBay but never thought she would use. When she began to play with it after the accident, Joyce was amazed at the ways it fit her new reality. "It was like it was made for my body. It had the chord buttons on the left-hand side and the keyboard on the right-hand side, so it became very natural to me as I don't have very much dexterity in my left hand. Pushing and pulling buttons became very natural."

Molly Joyce plays her vintage toy organ.
(Photo: Colin Conces)

The attraction went far beyond utility. "I became obsessed with the sound," she said. "It is like it is out of tune with itself, and every single one I have is tuned a little differently in a way that is impossible to replicate digitally." 

Just as the new instrument inspired her to explore live performance, Joyce was also discovering disability studies in graduate school. "I realized there was so much to explore there artistically," she said. "The rich world of disability arts encouraged me so much. There were so many strands to explore on my own, including my own narrative of accepting my own disability and physical loss. There was suddenly this infinite well of creative inspiration."

Some of that inspiration has come from fellow disabled performers like Jerron Herman, a disabled interdisciplinary artist with whom Joyce has often collaborated. "I have learned so much from him about making art through disability," she said. "Jerron was one of the first to push me to identify as disabled. I love how he talks about disabled people with words like freedom, joyfulness, and liberation in a way that counters the common narrative of suffering, surviving, or just getting by."

Joyce has been putting inspiration and her remarkable talent to great use, building a career as a performer and composer that has gained her wide acclaim from audiences and critics alike. The Washington Post has called her one of the "most versatile, prolific, and intriguing composers working under the vast new music dome."

Joyce's creative projects have been presented and commissioned by Carnegie Hall, TEDxMidAtlantic, Hirschhorn Museum, and Sculpture Garden, Bang on a Can, Danspace Project, Americans for the Arts, National Sawdust, Gaudeamus Muziekweek, National Gallery of Art, Music Academy of the West, and in Pitchfork, Red Bull Radio, and WNYC's New Sounds, as well as our very own WTJU 91.1FM. She is a graduate of Juilliard, Royal Conservatory in The Hague, Yale, an alumnus of the YoungArts Foundation, and holds an Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies from City University of New York. She is a doctoral student at the University of Virginia in Composition and Computer Technologies. She has served on the composition faculties of New York University, Wagner College, and Berklee Online.

For more on Molly Joyce:

Joyce's solo work combines the electronically enhanced sounds of the organ with her own singing and has, over time, added video to the mix, which allows her to delve even deeper into the world of accessibility. "Adding video to the multiple sensory outputs I work with makes things like open captions possible," she said, "which hard-of-hearing audiences can benefit from." It also allows her, she added, to avoid prioritizing one medium over another.

As she shared in a compelling 2017 TedxMidAtlantic talk, Going Beyond Ability, Molly Joyce's journey has taken her from "Why me?" to "Why not me?"  Amazing, isn't it, the power of a single word to change a life, inspire countless others, and bring an important musical voice into the world?

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