Many children and young people with profound disabilities have a natural and sophisticated understanding of sound and music. But how do you get them involved?

I’m not a musician – I’m a drummer! I make this confession not just to reinforce an old joke (we drummers are often the butt of musicians’ humour) but to illustrate an important point. Give me pair of sticks and something to hit and I can express myself freely and musically, using technique acquired through years of practice. However, give me a violin or sit me down at a piano keyboard and I will struggle to communicate anything with any coherence.

I believe that everyone is inherently musical. Anecdotal evidence (and a great deal of research) shows that many children and young people with the most profound disabilities have a natural and sophisticated understanding of sound and music. They have the capacity to respond to musical stimulus and are often motivated to reach out and attempt to express themselves through sound even when other forms of communication (eg language) are non-existent. It’s often just a case of finding the right tools for the job – the drum sticks instead of the violin.

In this respect, music technology can be an enormously useful resource. This article is meant as a starting point on a road of exciting possibilities. I’m joined on this by Andrew Cleaton, a ‘proper’ musician who also works extensively with children with a range of additional needs to help them make music. His experience in workshops and with music making is balanced by my more technical overview. Between us we hope to provide some inspiration.

One thing to make absolutely clear is that this is neither an exhaustive list of devices or a competition with a single winner. No one instrument will suit everybody – there isn’t a single magic controller that will enable everyone. Also, rather like having an orchestra made of just one instrument (apologies to the ukulele orchestras out there), the interesting music is made when you mix acoustic and a variety of electronic instruments together.


Soundbeam
This instrument is a veteran of the music technology world, having been around since the late 80s in various forms. Using a method similar to the way that bats can ‘see’ in the dark, the basic controller (a red ‘torch’) sends out an ultrasonic pulse that when broken by movement is turned into musical sounds.

Soundbeam isn’t just about beams. The system also has a switch box to which you can attach standard assistive technology switches. These switches can also be used to trigger sounds, allowing several people to make music together.

Although a great deal of customisation is available, one of the great things about Soundbeam is that it comes with a well-chosen palette of preset activities. This means that it’s possible to immediately start making interesting music, secure in the knowledge that everything played will fit together and sound ‘right’ without the need for a crash course in music theory.

The latest Soundbeam (version 5) needs only a pair of speakers to get up and running, with a built-in sound module, sampler and amplifier. This comes at a hefty cost, but you’re buying over 20 years of design refinement and educational evidence. Before you rush off and buy one though, check your storerooms. Many older Soundbeams are to be found languishing at the back of cupboards and can be up and running with the addition of a few cables and a bit of training.


Skoog
By contrast, Skoog is a quirky newcomer. Visually distinctive, Skoog is an attractively simple and tactile controller that plugs (via USB) into any Apple Mac or Windows PC computer. The user plays the Skoog by hitting, pushing or squeezing the cube’s sides while the work of producing the actual sounds is done by specialist software on the computer.

The main selling point is the sensitivity of the controller itself, which can respond to the slightest touch or turn on its surface. Each side of the cube can be allocated a different note or chord, meaning that tunes can be played and simple colour-coded scores (or Skores!) produced. You can use it with MIDI instruments or with its own ‘virtual’ instruments which provide an additional level of musical control.

The downside is the USB lead that keeps it tethered to the computer. It’s also our experience that the soft, spongy Skoog, whilst ideal for its intended use, can prove too tempting to children wanting to explore it orally. We would therefore not recommend its use with children prone to putting things in their mouths.


Beamz
The new kid on the block? Well, not really. It’s been around in various forms for quite a few years but it has recently relaunched in the UK and been aimed squarely at the special needs market.

For those of us brought up watching Jean Michel Jarre with his laser harp, this is the 21st Century reality. Four laser beams intersect the trident shaped controller, which can be broken to trigger sounds and loops. Like the Skoog, the Beamz is a USB controller which relies on software running on a computer to do all the work.

From a musical point of view the Beamz software keeps everything in time, meaning that pretty much everything you do sounds right. This makes it an extremely encouraging tool for engaging children in active music making. However, when everything is so easy we would question what potential such a device offers for learning and progression in the longer term. Although the controller is the main selling point, the software can be used on its own; with switches; and (via the special version sold by Tobii) with eye gaze. There is also an iPad app for download from the Apple App Store.

Beamz

Beamz

There are several different Beamz packages, including an ‘Education and Health Care’ version that comes with suitable content, so you can be up and playing in a very short space of time. You’ll need to watch that heads (and specifically eyes) don’t get too close to those lasers. We also found that the plastic was quite flexible and sometimes the lasers went out of alignment. It’s easy to bend it back, but with children sometimes grabbing the Beamz unit this ended up happening more than we would have liked.


Apollo Ensemble
A combination of software and various sensors make this more of a musical exploration kit than one single instrument. You can use various wireless sensors and interfaces, other MIDI instruments and even Xbox games controllers with the PC software to trigger sounds. Drag-and-drop PC software allows you link cause and effect on screen, with access to MIDI sounds, audio clips, video, image and even lighting control for those who want to add multimedia feedback.

The downside of the flexibility is that, unlike Soundbeam or Beamz, you don’t get any precomposed content so you need to put in the groundwork from day one. The upside is the sheer flexibility and range of controllers available, meaning that after getting to grips with the software you’ll be able to customise this instrument to a range of different abilities.


iPad/iPhone Apps

ipads

iPads

OK, so we’ve cheated a bit as these aren’t really musical instruments – or are they? The combination of some superb apps and Guided Access make these great touchscreen and movement-based controllers. Guided Access is a little known, but extremely valuable, feature built into iPads and iPhones since iOS 6.


Thumbjam

Thumbjam

Thumbjam

Some fantastic musical sounds laid out across the screen. Just dragging your fingers (or thumb!) across the screen produces a very musically rewarding performance.


Bloom
Devised by Brian Eno, this app produces characteristically calming and beautiful ambient music. Against a pleasing background wash of sound, the user can touch the screen to trigger piano notes accompanied by blooming circles of colour. It’s possible to build up layers of musical sounds, even if just playing one note requires great physical effort.


Garageband
Apple’s own flagship music-making app contains some fabulous sounds and extremely realistic instruments, everything from string orchestras to rock bands and world music ensembles.
With some of the more daunting and complex features locked away by Guided Access, Garageband is an engaging experience for all. Also, don’t forget to equip the idevice with a suitable case to protect it from drops and bangs.

Garageband

Garageband

Although we’ve highlighted the devices aimed specifically at SEN, there is no reason not to make use of any instrument that is appropriate for a player’s needs. The Korg Wavedrum Mini and Numark Orbit are both mainstream devices but also work just as well as accessible instruments. As I said at the start, if it can enable a drummer like me to compose it can help anyone.

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About Contributors

Mark Hildred is a musician and technologist who has spent the past 15 years developing and supporting technology that enables people with physical disabilities to perform and compose their own music.

Andrew Cleaton is an accomplished composer, producer and workshop leader. He is a founding co-director of Epiphany Music Ltd.

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