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Music for Curious Minds at the Brighton Science Festival - review by Annabelle Spender

Music for Curious Minds was for me one of the most exciting events programmed for the Brighton Science Festival. This was due to my background in designing bespoke medical equipment for young people with disabilities, including a musical wheelchair for my final year dissertation. 

The event was all about the latest developments that have been made to enable young people with disabilities to access music. Three organisations have combined their efforts for the last three years and we were to see the results.

Back in 2010 I had spent 9 months researching the existing musical instruments available in order to create my own, so I was looking forward to finding out what advancements had been made. I also took along a fellow musician so that I could find out what they thought of these incredible creations as well. The truly incredible singer / song writer Melissa Hubert joined me for the evening and was interested to find out about new instruments, be inspired and pick up ideas for her own music.

Music for Curious Minds at the Brighton Science Festival 2015 by Annabelle Spender

The talk was held in the church opposite the Brighton Dome with chairs filling the room facing a row of screens and technology surrounding a stage. As we arrived we found a place near the front and watched as slowly the room filled with more and more people. It was clear that most people present were interested in attending due to a family member who they had brought along, but there were a number of other musicians or designers present too.

It appears that this was a very popular talk as all the seats were full, people stood at the back and filled the benches all along the walls. After a brief introduction and welcome, a video began that we were warned would be 20 minutes long.

The crowd was also informed about the cost of existing music technology for those with disabilities, such as the Sound Beam, that costs in the region of £1,800 - £3,000 for one instrument. While I was fully aware of this (and the £1,000's needed for specialist training to set up and and use these devices) the shocked sounds from the audience and Melissa put the video into perspective. ­The world of musical instruments and their costs for those in the disability world is even unknown to the parents. This is why so many schools do not have the funds to buy enough sound beams or other similar technology to create an orchestra.

When the video started, it covered the journey of three different special educational needs schools to form three orchestras, and started with the difficulty many young people with disabilities face in using conventional instruments. As the video went on, it showed the delight as young people got to control sound through movements that suited them and explained how and why interfaces were designed with each person in mind. Looking around the room, the awe on people's faces was incredible as these new budding musicians practised alone and then came together. It was when the video climaxed with the three performances that the young people with disabilities in the room vocally showed their joy.­ It showed how it's possible for them to create music, show expression and have a voice like others.

Bristol MUSE Project and OHMI

As the lights came back on applause filled the room, magnified by the churches design. One by one the figureheads of each of the organisations, Bristol MUSE Project and OHMI, stood up and explained their part ­whether it was funding musical instruments, designing them or setting up orchestras within schools across the country. While each talk was short and to the point, it was great to hear about the work that each organisation did but also a brief overview of what plans they have in the pipeline.

A member of the English Para-orchestra, who has found her voice and movement in her arms again through music told her story. Starting from when she was able bodied for the first 10 years of her life it took a sudden dive into a world where she could no longer speak or eat for herself. Her story highlighted the struggles that people with disabilities have accessing music, especially when before it had come so easily. Now as a mentor and inspiration for other young musicians, her story clearly resonates to show the need for more support, funding and awareness.

The second half of the event took a much more interactive turn as 5 of the instruments designed as part of these projects were shown with the use of volunteers with the goal of recreating a celebrated piece of music. The first piece of technology shown was the eye-gaze­ and existing piece of technology used by those with only their eyes as a way to communicate. 

Connected to a special interface, it now allows people to create music with just their eyes. It was at this point that the speaker explained how often it is hard to see that people are performing compared to conventional instruments. He asked us to call out what he thought we were playing while he mimed playing a violin and then guitar before stumping everyone by just using his eyes or slight head movements.

While this technology can allow the smallest movements from the eyes or head to create music, it can often be difficult to show someone how to use it or the difficulties behind it. After explaining how it worked, he called up a volunteer, a teenager in an electric wheelchair to try using it. He confirmed after a minute or so that it was difficult to use but extremely powerful.

Following this path, the head tracking was introduced next with the use of another member of the audience.

After a spot was put on their nose, the young volunteer sitting in a wheelchair was able to create beautiful melodies through moving their head up, down and side to side. Laughter and joy filled the room every time he cheekily played as the speaker went on to the next instrument.

To show in contrast what can be achieved with more conventional technology, he introduced a programme especially created for an iPad. The interface briefly shown by him was quickly taught to another young person with disabilities and joy filled the room as­ this piece of technology provides an affordable alternative.

Music for Curious Minds at the Brighton Science Festival 2015 by Annabelle Spender

It was at this point that he made it clear the costs of each of the pieces so far, with the eye gaze at the upper end ­this lead and the least expensive piece the Xbox Kinect. For those that were not aware of how the Sound Beam works, a basic explanation of only two way movement enables music to be created but it does not contain expression and is overly expensive and complicated.

The Kinect costs £80, tracks 3D movements, is affordable and shows expression. He sat on a chair and showed that even for an able-­bodied person it could create beautiful melodies. He then invited someone up to try. A mother volunteered her son, who at first was following her guidance to move his hand up and down. At first, he was overwhelmed by facing the audience and not able to comprehend the impact of his hand movements but then as the audience's chuckle to the speakers banter of stealing his spotlight ceased, he realised his movement was affecting the sound. A smile quickly spread across his face and joy fluttered through the room as a young man experienced the pure joy of making music for the first time. It was that point that those visiting out of curiosity rather than personal connection or family members got to see the impact of creating music for the first time. This for the family members confirmed the possibilities that lay in front of them. The room at that point changed as a world of opportunity or experience opened in front of their eyes ­ and I experienced seeing pure joy from someone once again being able to communicate through music, ­ something that I have not seen in 5 years.

The final instrument was a head tracking device with an air sensor so that it can be used as a trumpet. By using head movements to select a note, air is blown through to control when and how loud the note is. As this was a more complex system to use, an able bodied volunteer who was an existing musician was called up to show the possibilities. After getting a red dot on her nose with her daughter on her nose, she learnt the notes needed to play a tune­ the same tune that had been playing before the talk ­Pachelbel Canon in D. For those with full cognitive abilities but limited to only head and breath control, this existing musical instrument was awe inspiring to watch as it was quickly picked up to recreate a classic tune.

It was at this point that the speakers cunning plan came to pass ­getting all of his volunteers to help create Pachelbel Canon in D. Starting the piece himself, he asked the others to join in once they realised the slow speed that he was playing it at. One by one they joined in and for a few minutes the audience was wowed by a stunningly beautiful performance from a mix of those with and without disabilities. As they slowed to an end, applause filled the room for almost as long as the performance and echoes of joyful sounds from audience members. The impact of what had been shown before their eyes in the room made the room explode in applause again as the speaker finished the event.

With the talk over, everyone was invited to check out the technology and talk to the creators for the next 30 minutes. Young people too nervous to go out in front of everyone had a chance to try playing music for the first time, while those who had performed got the chance to find out when they might have the chance to play again. As I have played with a lot of the technology before, I only tried the iPad interface to see how it worked but parents flocked to talk to the organisers to find out how they could get access for their loved ones. The room after the talk was full of hope, joy and laughter ­ this talk changed people's opinions or gave them direction.

They have plans for future events so if you get the opportunity, whether or not you or a family member have disabilities, this is an eye opening talk that will make you rethink music but also see pure joy that you will not see anywhere else.

With Huge Thanks to Annabelle Spender for her review and photos - follow @lillyringletLillyRinglet blog

This event was put on by Music of Our Time, follow them on Twitter @MusicOfOurTime and Facebook musicofourtime

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