Brainwave maestro hits top note

10th September 2010 at 01:00
Teenager with cerebral palsy achieves A grade in music exam by harmonising determination and technological wizardry

Cerebral palsy restricts Chris Jacquin's movements severely, but he has loved making music since primary school. This year, he became the first pupil to sit an SQA music exam using a virtual instrument played with facial muscles and brainwaves.

This marks the beginning of a new era which could lead to severely disabled pupils like Chris sitting Higher music, says the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

Having achieved the top grade - an A - for his Intermediate 1 music with technology, Chris now plans to push the boundaries further and tackle Intermediate 2. The only obstacle is access to the right kind of technology.

Chris, who is 15 and a pupil at Edinburgh's Trinity Academy, is wheelchair-bound. He can barely use his right hand and arm at all and, while he has some control over his fingers, his hands tend to be clenched, making movement difficult, says David McNiven, a classroom assistant who has tutored him in music since first year. He has, however, been able to indulge his love of making music, thanks to sheer determination and technological advances.

The first obstacle to be surmounted was the school's layout. Trinity Academy's music department is located on a mezzanine floor with no lift access, but if Chris wanted to study music as a grade subject, he had to attend regular classes.

"He stood up and said, `I'll learn to walk'" recalls Mr McNiven, who is also a freelance composer. "He fell down again on that occasion but, in the end, he learned to walk with a walking frame so he could make it to class."

Having reached the music department, Chris used Notion software to make his music, and a joystick and switch he could tap with his more dexterous left hand.

Then he was introduced to Brainfingers, a headband which carries out the functions of a mouse. Instead of responding to hand movements, it responds to brainwaves and facial movements, including lateral eye movements.

When Chris uses Brainfingers, it's programmed to respond exclusively to the movements of his jaw muscles, so he composes and performs pieces on Notion by tapping his teeth together.

This was a skill he honed long before Brainfingers came on the scene, Mr McNiven explains. When his parents banned him from drumming on the car headrest with his fist in time to the music on the car radio, he became adept at secretly playing complex rhythms by "dental drumming".

"The joystick and switch were primitive in comparison to Brainfingers," says Mr McNiven.

When it came to sitting his Intermediate 1 music with technology exam, Notion was Chris's first instrument and he sat a Midi sequencing module in place of his second instrument.

"Chris is very talented and develops great ideas - he's very creative," says Mr McNiven.

Composing for Chris is a painstaking process. Each note has to be dragged from a palette and if he doesn't like the end result when he presses "play", he has to begin dragging notes again.

"It's really very fiddly and takes much longer than someone sitting at a keyboard," says Mr McNiven. "But the end result is extremely satisfactory when he gets it right.

"Where the Notion software excels beyond anything else is that the samples used have been recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road, using top-of-the-range instruments, one note at a time. When you select a Stradivarius violin, you get a recording of a real Stradivarius played by a top performer."

Performing is also complicated for Chris. In addition to playing his instrument, he has to conduct all the orchestral parts. "He is basically having to do everything," says Mr McNiven.

Chris's virtual instrument did not allow for melodic input, so it was treated as a percussion instrument, explains Mary McDonald, SQA's qualifications manager for music. "Like a drum-kit player, it allowed him to do the tempo and rhythm," she says. "He also had to be able to play in time, on the beat and accurately."

So while reasonable adjustments can be made to qualifications and assessment for people with disabilities, that was not necessary in Chris's case, she says. He was simply assessed as if he was playing a percussion instrument.

With the exam and a top grade under his belt, Chris now faces a different challenge. The Brainfingers device he used to sit his Intermediate 1 exam belongs to Drake Music Scotland, a charity which believes disability is no barrier to making music. It would cost pound;2,000 for Chris to have his own one. So Mr McNiven, with the help of Drake, is looking at other options, including a mouth-controlled mouse that is currently being developed and is far cheaper.

"It was originally designed for sky divers, so they could take pictures as they plummeted thousands of feet. Instead of using their hands, they just clicked a switch held in their mouths. We're hoping it might work with a laptop."

But it's really a generous benefactor that they want.

"I'm hoping some rich person sees this article and thinks `Wow! I have to buy that for him!'"


A teenager who lost both his eyes at the age of two has achieved an A grade in his Advanced Higher music, despite sitting it two years early.

Saad Attieh, a 15-year-old pupil at the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh, had already achieved an A for Higher music two years ahead of schedule.

Saad, from Saudi Arabia, had his eyes surgically removed after being diagnosed with retinoblastoma, cancerous tumours in both eyes. He learned to listen to music and reproduce sounds perfectly.

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