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22 May 2015

Mik Scarlet started out on the road to being a musician when he was given a toy electric keyboard and thanks to music technology, became one a handful of disabled musicians performing during a period when it was almost unheard of. Here he charts the progress of assistive music technology and talks to Gary Day and Ivan Riches from Drake Music London to find out what modern music tech has to offer disabled musicians.

I wonder has music technology now reached a point where lacking physical ability is not a barrier to creating music? Gary, who is an associate musician and trainer with Drake Music working in the creative application of music technology, delivering workshops and training all around accessible music making, has mixed views over the speed of technological change: 

"While accessible music tech has come very far, it's not as far as it needs to go. People have always dreamed of things going wireless. Some instruments and tech are already, but there are still a few years of development to go before every thing will be wireless. Wireless tech will give a freedom that will be highly liberating for disabled musicians." 

But are disabled people involved in changing the direction music tech design takes? 

"Good question! Mostly as far as I know it's been non-disabled people designing assistive music tech FOR disabled people, which is not ideal. Although recently I met with a guy from Drake Music Ireland with a piece of kit called INGRID that was specifically designed with four disabled musicians, which led this tech to being customizable for each musicians specific needs. I think it was really successful as everybody's needs are different and this took the direction of being bespoke for each individual. There are no one size fits all solutions.”

So what are Gary's top five pieces of assistive music tech? 

"The i-Pad, for many reasons, then wireless switches yet again for many reasons. Then a piece that we don't have here at Drake Music, the Magic Flute, which is a kind of electronic flute, is definitely up there in my top five. Eye tracking and eye gazing tech is another essential and 3-D motion sensors. 

All of these allow the disabled musician to manipulate all manner of sound creation technology. The i-Pad can be loaded with a huge number of software applications and with the rest you can be set free to create whatever music you desire. With much of the technology there will be a need to work around the person. Whatever movement they have then you map that out to suit the individual.” 

This is about taking existing triggering technology, such as drum pads, and shaping them to work for many more musicians. However getting electronic music-making technology ready to create can be a task in itself. Is there assistive tech to do that part of the electronic music making process? 

"Again, the Magic Flute allows for total independence over the creative process. I jammed with a disabled musician at a music expo who used the Magic Flute and he had full control over his instrument as I did with mine. Music tech for many years was either ‘on’ or ‘off’ so the sound was on or off, but instruments like the Magic Flute are tough instuments to learn to play. You can use it a trigger, playing a sample loop, but it also allows real expression. That is the way modern music tech is going, as is assistive tech." 

What would he say was the key element to remember when launching into making music if your impairment impacts on your ability to play? 

"What's important is that people understand these things can take time to set up properly, but once you've saved the settings you are off. Take the Eye Tracker or Eye Gaze: an act like DJ EyeTech broadcasts his own radio show just with his eyes. That involved a real commitment to setting the tech up at the start. 

It can be frustrating, but once you've got the assistive tech working for your needs the world is your oyster. Before a workshop I tend to set up the gear and this allows people to try stuff out. Then we can fit specific equipment for a disabled musician's specific needs." 

As someone who has worked with Gary on the Drake Music reimagining of jazz track ‘ChinaTown, My ChinaTown’ as part of the Connect and Collaborate project I found some of the technology really instant. I-Pads can be like having a full digital recording studio in the palm of your hand, and so once you have your assistive tech set up you can access a whole world of creative possibilities.

Gary felt that music tech of the future will be around expression. 

"Electronic digital instruments are still not thought of as ‘real’ instruments as they can lack expression, but this is changing. That will lead to disabled children being able to be taught to play using assistive tech with a result exactly the same as if they were using conventional instruments. That is a key dream, the ability for all to be taught music no matter what their impairment." 

It might even lead non-disabled musicians to use this tech to explore creative possibilities, which in turn might lead to many professional studios owning assistive tech with their kit lists, and thus the recording industry would become accessible. 

Ivan Riches, artist and associate musician with Drake Music, actively promotes a collaborative approach for disabled musicians, through the scheme ‘Connect and Collaborate’. 

"Nothing works like a role model, and assistive music tech is great but being able to see someone who has a similar impairment to yourself being creative highlights what is possible. What musicians want, disabled or not, is timbre or the ability to allow an instrument have feeling. Luckily much of the latest music tech allows this, and our job is to facilitate disabled musicians to access this technology." 

I know that after working with John Kelly on the Chinatown project it is possible to use modern touch sensitive tech, such as an i-Phone, in such way to give a disabled musician the ability to have emotion in their playing. 

"That's why John prefers to use an i-Phone, as it allows him to hold the interface in a way that is right for him, and that allows him to have real control over not only what he plays but how he plays it."

What one thing would Ivan like to see improve in the future? 

"It's OK for Drake Music to work in schools, and facilitate disabled students to make music, but what happens once they leave school? I would love to see a move towards music educational establishments accepting assistive tech solutions into their creative process. It already is happening, with the take up of software like notation program Sibelius but it there is more to be done. Modern tech allows disabled people to make music in a way that was once closed to them. The work that Drake Music does shows what is possible, and it's great that DAO is getting the word out that the world of assistive music tech is out there." 

I cannot underestimate the joy of creating music. I started when I had just began using a wheelchair and it set me free. It also set me on the path to my current career, meeting my wife and having some serious fun along the way. Even today, music is a way of switching off and just being artistic. 

If you fancy trying out some of the kit featured in this article. Drake Music are running free Test It sessions in London’s Southbank Centre on 30-31 May from 11am until 6pm. Please click on this link for more information about the open days.

If you can't make it, contact Drake Music and see if they are running an event near you, or if they can give you some advice.