Innovative music technology is allowing pupils with disabilities to play an instrument. And it can be used by others too
DRAKE MUSIC scotland, the arts organisation which has pioneered the use of 21st century music technology with disabled young people, is set to sail into new waters - and hopes the beneficiaries will also be teachers and pupils without disabilities.
The organisation's new cutting-edge premises at SPACE, the social enterprise and arts centre in Edin-burgh's Craigmillar area, will allow it to run a landmark programme of taster sessions, demonstrating its range of creative music-making techniques which open up new opportunities to those who could not otherwise access conventional musical instruments.
Patrick Wilson, 11, a pupil at Priorsford Primary in Peebles, who has cerebral palsy, demonstrated how to play a Chopin piano study using "Brainfingers" at the launch.
He wears a Cyberlink headband, which detects electrical signals from facial muscles, eye movements, and brainwaves. The "Brainfingers" software decodes these signals into virtual fingers which trigger mouse and keyboard events on the computer screen.
"With the assistance of 21st century music technology, disabled people of all ages can experience playing, composing and performing music as independently as possible," says Thursa Sanderson, director of Drake Music Scotland.
The organisation is now entering its second decade and its move from an old church hall in Gorgie to a new base will allow it to expand its work beyond its current level of 10 local authorities.
The new facilities include a sound-proofed studio, fully accessible and equipped with the latest music technology. Its recording facilities are expected to attract demand from other outside users.
The new base will also allow Drake Music to carry out intensive assessments of the needs of disabled people in terms of their ability to access music, and to work with groups such as Playback, an advocacy group for special needs youngsters of school leaving age.
It also extends Drake Music's ability to offer training and continuing professional development for special needs teachers and music teachers who want specialist training in working with pupils with additional support needs.
"The idea is to be able to do training for school staff," says Ms Sanderson. "We do a lot of outreach work in schools and encourage them to purchase the technology so that, after we've done the training, they can continue.
"We are being asked to work further and further afield - the Western Isles, Aberdeen, Inverclyde - and are looking at video-conferencing to keep in touch and deliver staff training."
Having observed the video-conferencing music tuition programme developed in Dumfries and Galloway by the authority's music advisor, Alan Cameron, she sees scope for this technology to be used in Drake Music's work - not as a replacement for workshops, but as a way of monitoring staff in some of the more remote locations.
Ms Sanderson also recognises that many special needs teachers lack confidence in teaching the expressive arts generally, and music specifically, but specialist organisations can help them overcome that.
The new base cost pound;169,000, funded mainly by the Scottish Arts Council, but with additional support from the computer company Scotsys and the Scottish Executive's New Arts Spon-sorship Awards.
BREAK THE SOUND BEAM
Children from Clydeview special school and St Bernadette's Primary in Motherwell embarked on a musical journey with Drake Music Scotland this year, using music technology and acoustic instruments to tell a story of spooky islands, dangerous storms, sea monsters, and pirate ports.
Along with Drumpark special school and Bargeddie Primary, they performed their compositions at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall last month as part of North Lanarkshire's annual spring concert.
Sue Dodds, consultant in music special education with North Lanarkshire, says that beyond the obvious benefits for inclusion in pairing special and mainstream schools together, the music technology projects teach all the children social skills such as co-operation and taking turns.
They have been using the "soundbeam" technology, which is based on movement detection "a bit like a burglar alarm". When the beam is broken, it makes a music sound back. Together, the pupils learn to "play" the soundbeams and switches in time. They may be accompanying other music, or creating their own.
Mrs Dodds adds that, while the technology gives rein to the creativity of the children with additional needs, it is also a great "leveller", showing the mainstream children that there are some things the special children can do that they can't - such as signing.