Sonata for toe and keyboards;Special needs;Music for the Millennium;Education

15th May 1998 at 01:00
Computers enable young disabled musicians tocompose and perform. Sally McKeown reports

IF THE idea of music performed by disabled people conjures up images of tambourines or xylophones, then think again. "Access to computer technology through the Drake Music Project means that disabled musicians have the opportunity to create elaborate and compelling music." So says Jools Holland who, among his many other musical activities, is a patron of the project.

He will be playing blues and performing a range of original works with disabled musicians in a concert at the Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, in September. Guest players will include the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and members of the CandoCo Dance Company.

The project is the brainchild of Adele Drake who, 10 years ago, realised that technology could be a powerful force in the creative process. She was a volunteer at Charlton Park School for physically disabled children in south London and so had first-hand experience of the ways computers could liberate disabled young people from the limitations imposed by their bodies. "I felt it would change the way music was made and that would open up new worlds for the disabled musician."

The technology did not come cheap but she and an enthusiastic group of friends worked hard to raise funds to develop software for musicians with disabilities. She also liaised with universities, musicians and companies and there is now a Drake honorary research fellow at York University. Dr Tim Anderson, the post holder, has developed E-Scape, a software package for musicians with restricted movement. Recently the software was featured in a live performance for the first time when David Crawshaw, a switch user with cerebral palsy, used it to compose and play music at a concert in Exmoor.

Musicians can use computers to write down ideas, to create and perform music and to help them to play an instrument. The computer can also be used in live performances as an instrument in its own right. Range and quality vary with cost. Most modern computers come with a sound card which allows them to produce sounds and musical notes. With the appropriate software, musicians can compose by entering notes on the screen or arranging sounds using a mouse, switch or keyboard.

MIDI keyboards come in a range of sizes, including small ones with light action keys for people with restricted hand movements. Steve Knight uses a single foot to operate a trackerball with a locking button. He uses his left foot to play the music and alters the timing and wrong notes afterwards.

Some musicians favour MIDI Creator, a box with a number of sockets. Sensors, switches, floor pads and other devices can be attached so that different movements or actions can produce different notes, scales or chords. Instead of using their hands to play an instrument, the whole body may become a means of creating music.

Composers also benefit from the technology. Sequencer software, such as Midi Workshop or more sophisticated packages such as Cubase and Perform, allow the composer to work in different ways. They can capture notes played on a connected MIDI instrument or can be used to enter notation on screen via the keyboard or other input device. It works rather like a word processor for music and allows the composer to edit, correct or rearrange notes to create a finished piece. If using a sequencer with digital audio facilities, recorded sounds can be integrated into the piece. The piece can be printed out as a manuscript or can be played back by the computer.

There are Drake music centres in Coventry, London, Scotland and Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and new centres are due to open soon in Manchester and Milton Keynes.

Chris Smith, a part-time adviser in Coventry, is also employed by the Drake project to work with young disabled musicians at Sherbourne School. The children have a wide range of disabilities. "It has been a very positive experience for everyone," says Chris. "We are giving disabled people access to the latest developments in music technology.

Sue Balcombe, Coventry project co-ordinator, agrees. She points to the wide range of activities underway. Students at Hereward College will be involved in a joint performance with dance students at the Richard Attenborough Centre in Leicester and are performing during Disability Week in Coventry in June. There is also a Monday night workshop open to the wider disabled community in Coventry.

"The technology has transformed the outlook on music for disabled people," she says. " It has added a great dimension to their lives and enabled them to fulfil their musical talent."

The Drake Music Project, Christchurch Forum, Trafalgar Road, London SE10 9EQ; 0181 305 0580.

BECTA (The British Educational and Communications Technology Agency) is launching teacher support booklets on CD-Rom, MIDI, sound processing and electronic keyboards. A video and CDshow the technology in operation.

Information about the music project can be found at the Virtual Teachers' Centre: Publications details from BECTA Bookshop, Milburn Hill Road, Coventry CV54 7JJ; 01203 416669

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