Computers: Beating the drum for the disabled - Advanced techno

The Guardian (Manchester); 15 November 1990; Claire Neesham; p. 31

EACH Thursday after noon one of the normally quiet committee rooms at the Blackheath Concert Halls in south London is transformed into a music studio. It is filled with young, aspiring musicians trying out their latest riffs and rhythms on drum machines, synthesisers and computers. The weekly workshops are the brainchild of Adele Drake, who founded the Drake Research Project in March 1988. The project focuses on music for the disabled. The Thursday sessions are designed to encourage young people with severe disabilities resulting from disorders such as cerebral palsy to play electronic and computer instruments. Drake became interested in using advances in technology to help people with disabilities while she was studying at the Institute of Education. She went on to pursue this interest personally, finding the funding for a trip to Seymore Papert's research laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and doing voluntary work for organisations such as London's Charlton Park School for children with special needs. Drake's next step was to combine the ideas she had gathered about the value of technology with her belief in the therapeutic benefits of music. 'Because I had seen word processors tell printers to print,' she says, 'I thought surely computers can tell instruments to play.' Drake proved this for herself one Christmas when she managed to assign the function keys on her Acorn BBC micro to melodic keys and play Good King Wenceslas. This spurred her to look for music equipment and software that the pupils at Charlton Park could use. As many of the young people Drake worked with had little controlled movement, electronic instruments were only a partial solution. The portability and sensitivity of keyboards and drum machines mean that they can be played with the feet or even the nose. However, the musician is limited to playing one note or group of notes if they don't have the movement or control to span the whole keyboard or drum machine. Sequencers help by increasing the variety of sounds that can be produced with a single keypress. But to be truly creative, her aspiring musicians needed some way of recording several sequences of sound. And there had to be an alternative for those who couldn't use keyboards or a drum machine. It was Drake's pursuit of alternative computer-based systems that led to the formation of the Research Project (a registered charity), and the weekly workshops at the Blackheath Concert Halls run initially for two pupils from Charlton Park. There are now 12 young people with varying types and degrees of disability attending the workshops on Thursday afternoon. Since September there have also been workshops in Harrogate. The project has attracted a good deal of interest both from other organisations working in a similar area (such as the Share-Music courses run by Dr Michael Swallow and Richard Stilgoe) and from schools and colleges. Pupils from various schools help at the workshops, a qualified music teacher provides tuition, and researchers from various universities are working on the project on both the social and technical side. The workshops use an Atari 1040 ST micro with Steinberg Pro 24 music software. This enables a student, using a mouse, to enter notes one at a time, then play them back as a sequence. They also use Midigrid software, developed on the ST by Andy Hunt and the York Music Technology Group at the University of York. Midigrid was designed for composers, who can create one or a series of sounds in each box of an on-screen grid. These sounds can be played back, in a variety of sequences, by moving an on-screen cursor across the grid using a mouse or a tracker ball. However, it does require a certain control of movement and many students are only able to move the mouse randomly to play back predefined sequences. A York research student, Tim Anderson, hopes to use some of these ideas in a planned new composition system. Although the work is aimed at professional musicians, he has won a grant from Laing for the final year, which will be spent adapting the software for people with disabilities. Anderson says his software will have a variety of physical interfaces a single switch, pre-set keys on a midi keyboard or even the Electronic Music Studios' Soundbeam (an ultrasonic beam source that sends Midi instructions depending on whether the beam is broken). The computer's graphical interface on the computer itself will also be adaptable to the user's abilities. Anderson has already developed some software specifically for the workshops. For example, he has written code so that small buttons on the synthesiser can be manipulated by pressing larger pads on the drum machine. This helps students who are adept at using their feet to play the drum machine, and can play chords on the keyboard, but who don't have the control to press the small buttons on the sythesiser. Throughout the project Drake and her colleagues have informally monitored the progress of the young musicians, and their achievements are already the subject of research papers. Although empirical data is thin, Dr Swallow, who specialised in neurology, believes that making music helps people realise their potential. The use of computers means these benefits can be gained by a broader cross-section of people, including those who can only make one movement. But first the teachers and music therapists have to know about the technology. This is an area which interests Drake. She believes complicated manuals and technospeak are inhibiting the wider use of technology. She is working on a video, partly funded by the Performing Rights Society, which includes instruction on Midigrid and provides an insight into some of the other uses of technology by members of the Drake Research Project. The video will make its debut at a seminar run by the Drake Research Project at York University on November 24. This is one of the many events on Drake's calender, which includes setting up more workshops, forging closer links with projects like Share-Music, and bringing music to people with a wider range of disabilities through the use of technology. The Drake Research Project, 3 Ure Lodge, Urebank Terrace, Ripon, North Yorkshire. Tel: 0765 4993.

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