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Technology For All

Mike Lawson • Technology • September 17, 2013

Tools and instruments to facilitate music-making for students with disabilities

 

The theremin was patented by Russian inventor Leon Theremin in 1928.

I like the name of the organization “Music for All” because it implies that music and music-making can and should be experienced by all people, especially in the education sphere. Unfortunately, in many music education programs this is not always the case. This is not a critical commentary on the broad population of music educators per se, as I believe it is not most educators’ intention to inadvertently deny access. However, access for students with special needs may be greatly improved through the application of certain technologies, some brand new and others which have been around for decades.

If we look at performance on traditional acoustic instruments, the performer affects changes in pitch, volume, articulation, and timbre by direct manipulation of the physical attributes of the instrument (including things like embouchure and voice in this, too). This all requires relatively good coordination and similar physical attributes to develop even limited skills. Maybe with the use of electronic-based instruments, the performer can overcome the need for this direct manipulation with a level of interaction spanning a range of movements, gestures, or cognitive abilities.

This class of instruments can be referred to singularly as Virtual Musical Instruments (VMI) and provides novel ways to manipulate sound in real time, a key component in musical performance. These technologies are changing at a more rapid rate than in the past as computing power has grown exponentially, devices have shrunk in size, and the financial cost continues to decline. Here is some technology that is allowing access to music and music-making for all.

 

Gesture-Sensing Sound Generators

Certainly not in the “new” category but maybe overlooked because of its perceived “niche” status, the theremin has been in existence since the 1920s and has been found everywhere from concert halls to recording and film studios. Performers such as Clara Rockmore helped make the theremin a serious concert instrument while all sorts of alternative and experimental rock bands have made use of its iconic sound. And what would the alien space ship in countless B movies of the 1950s sound like without the theremin? This deceptively simple instrument requires no direct physical manipulation by the performer as pitch and volume are controlled only by the proximity of the player’s hands to two metal rods. From the vertical rod, pitch rises the closer your hand gets, while volume decreases as your hand gets closer to the horizontal rod. Certainly simple in concept, but the instrument is a real challenge to master as the pitches it produces are the full frequency spectrum: no semi-tones, quarter-tones or anything like a set tonality. Moog Music (moogmusic.com) sells a unit for $399 although you can find DIY kits for less. There are also theremins that have MIDI implementation built in. There are many apps available for mobile devices like the iPad or Android tablets that recreate the theremin experience.

A more modern approach to hands-free performance is a device called the Soundbeam (soundbeam.co.uk). This instrument uses two types of gestures to trigger and send MIDI data to its on-board synthesizer or any external MIDI hardware device or software. The primary and most novel approach is an ultrasound detector (SONAR) that can be programmed to detect proximity of any object. This can be limited to hand gestures or full body motions and, since the ranges of the sensor’s distance readings are finely adjustable, both small and large motions can be detected, making it ideal for those with limited motion. The other gesture sensor is a more conventional trigger pad that takes very little motion or force to engage. What makes the Soundbeam such a potentially useful instrument for special needs students is its built-in MIDI processor that can be programmed to create a fixed tonality (for example: major, minor, or pentatonic), trigger multiple pitches at once, or start and stop a pre-planned or recorded sequence. The newest version of the Soundbeam has the ability to connect up to four ultrasound sensors and eight switches (with a wireless option). Each sensor or trigger can be individually configured to allow simultaneous performance by multiple performers.

The Soundbeam also includes a built-in sampler (to record and trigger live audio), on-board synthesizer, effects, and an amplifier, which eliminates the need for any external connections other than the sensors and speakers. The unit also has a recorder to capture student performances and SD card slot for memory expansion. The unit comes with many preset performance set-ups giving you “out of the box” plug and play. A Soundbeam package (soundtree.com) sells for just under $5,000.

The Leap Motion Controller.

The Leap Motion Controller (www.leapmotion.com) was just released in the summer of 2013. This hands-free 3-D motion detector works with just about any program on your computer. It is relatively easy to configure and has a small but growing marketplace of apps developed to make use of the controller from games to productivity to art creation. Your colleagues in visual art and many other disciplines may also find uses for this device. This $80 tool is small – about three inches in length, and plugs directly into a computer via USB port. Imagine playing air guitar or creating a small virtual keyboard where moving your hands or fingers can trigger notes. The AeroMIDI app by Acoustica is a great example of an app designed to use the Leap Motion Controller. Like many of the devices covered in this article, the AeroMIDI app is essentially a programmable MIDI processor allowing the controller to capture a user’s movement and convert it into something that a MIDI program would use to play a note on a synthesizer, change an effect parameter, or trigger a loop. In this way, any of your MIDI-based programs (such as GarageBand, Sibelius, Finale, and Ableton Live) can be used in conjunction with the Leap Motion controller.

 

Touch-Controlled Devices

Korg Kaossilator.

Korg’s Kaossilator (korg.com) is a device that has an X-Y coordinate pad (like a laptop’s trackpad) that can be programmed to behave similarly to the theremin but can do much more. While moving a finger horizontally across the pad can raise or lower the pitch, moving vertically can be programmed to affect various non-pitch parameters such as filter sweeps or modulation depth. Or, you can use the pad to trigger drum sounds. The newest version of the Kaossilator comes with 35 different tuning settings so that the player can lock in a particular key or tonality including chromatic, pentatonic, blues, and other scale types. It has an on-board sound engine with 150 preset sounds, including many synthesizer and acoustic variations, as well as 15 drum kits with 25 loops. You can record audio directly to the unit with its built-in mic and save performances as WAV files to an SD memory card. The unit has a built-in speaker and runs on AA batteries making it a great stand-alone instrument that doesn’t need any extra cables. It can also be integrated into a larger ensemble via the line out jack to a mixer or external speaker. The MSRP for the Kaossilator 2 is $160. Korg also makes an iPad version called the iKaossilator for $20. While there are many examples of “Kaos” bands on YouTube, check out the Greenwich High School nanoBand under the direction of Barbara Freedman for some interesting approaches and great performances.

Air-Controlled Devices

The Magic Flute.

The Magic Flute (www.mybreathmymusic.com/en/magic_flute.php) is a hands-free wind controller that requires no embouchure or the use of hands per se, just the player’s ability to blow air directly into the instrument’s mouthpiece. A gyroscope detects changes in its angle controlling pitch. It can be handheld or, with the addition of a camera tripod-like connection, be completely hands-free. The instrument has two components, the “recorder” device that you blow into and a control/processor box. The control box, similar to the Soundbeam, uses MIDI processing with a built-in synthesizer to create sounds and control the performance. It can be set to a fixed tonality or adjusted for the amount of air pressure needed or to change the timbre. Some of these controls can be done through direct manipulation of the flute piece without the need to touch the control box. At this time the instrument is available from Audio Rhoon (audiorhoon.nl/english/magic-flute).

David Whalen, an early collaborator on the Magic Flute, has also developed a similar instrument called the Jamboxx (www.jamboxx.com). This instrument resembles a harmonica in shape and is played much the same way by blowing and sucking air into it via a small straw-like mouthpiece. But without any holes to focus your breath into, like the Magic Flute, pitch changes are accomplished on the Jamboxx by moving the “straw” left or right. Instead of using a stand-alone control box, the Jamboxx relies on a direct USB connection to a personal computer (MacOS or Windows) and software to perform the processing functions like setting a fixed tonality or playing chords. While having an initial limited first production run, the company says it is working on a less expensive mass produced instrument that is estimated to cost about $450. The Jamboxx is also a cursor moving device and Mr. Whalen uses his invention to create beautiful visual art as well. Check it out at www.itodaynews.com/october2010/25-AH-Jambox.htm.

As you can see, there are a number of worthwhile options available to music teachers when trying to include special needs students in music-making activities. Some are ready to go “out of the box,” while others require a bit more configuration and have a steeper learning curve. None have any huge obstacles to overcome, especially considering the obstacles already faced by the students who could benefit from these technologies. Hopefully the technologies highlighted will spur you on to learn more about this ever-expanding field. While it may take some time to find the right tool for each student’s unique needs, it will be extremely satisfying when the right one facilitates music for all.

Dr. Marc Jacoby is an associate professor of Music at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where he serves as Jazz Studies coordinator and teaches in the Applied Music and Music Education programs. Dr. Jacoby is the co-creator and contributor to TheMusicInteractive.com, a website that distributes music games and activities designed for interactive whiteboards. In addition to his own titles, Jacoby has developed educational multimedia including games for Yamaha/PlayinTime Productions, Mark Wessels Publications, and CD-ROM’s for Row-Loff Productions. Dr. Jacoby is a certified Apple Pro Apps trainer, an artist/clinician for the Yamaha Corporation and Vic Firth, Inc., a Sibelius Ambassador, and is on the Educational Advisory Committee for Latin Percussion, Inc.

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