'Good enough' technology - don't knock it

During a session at the recent Inclusive Excellence Conference, part of Bristol’s Fast Forward Festival, an interesting discussion developed on what we mean when we say inclusive and excellent. As usual, it was only on the journey home that I was really able to clarify my thoughts on this. I share them now.

The context was a demonstration of how devices can be developed and used for making standard instruments playable by musicians with physical disability. There were some remarkable performances, live and recorded, of disabled musicians now able to play standard classical repertoire as a result of modifications or attachments to a range of traditional instruments. Valuable and important work which addresses the excellence and, to some degree, the accessible.

The conversations moved on to the current ‘inadequacies’ of accessible electronic instruments and devices – and how there is still much work to be done before they can be regarded as serious musical instruments, which will bear comparison with traditional instruments. This is dangerous territory that raises all sorts of thorny issues:

  • Why should electronic instruments necessarily aspire to the functionality associated with some acoustic instruments?
  • There are many traditional instruments across the world with very limited functionality which have been used for centuries in totally valid music making contexts
  • There are so many of our disabled students who will never be able to engage with instruments where mechanical manipulation is a factor. Electronics provides the only viable opportunities they will have.
  • Music made using electronics and synthesized sounds does not have to conform to the criteria and benchmarks embodied in the paradigm of western classical music. These parameters are not to be thought of as a hegemony for all musics.

Of course, we always want to see improvements and developments in music technologies, but some of the devices we have at present are perfectly adequate for enabling genuinely musical experience. If those performing and those listening are moved in some way by the sounds that are being made, that will suffice. Music is happening.

Topic: 
306 reads

Comments

mhildred's picture

I very much agree with this David. Technology offers access to a whole range of sounds that aren't available on conventional instruments, which can often be very inviting and interesting. I remember once using the General MIDI helicopter sound at a really low octave, which produced a really attractive texture that was great to explore.

I think we also need to remember that most of our acoustic instruments have developed over hundreds of years to become the expressive instruments they are today. Alongside their development has been the composing of suitable repertoire for both solo and groups of instruments.

Doug Bott's picture

Thanks for posting this David - great to be able to continue the discussion after the conference. Here are a few thoughts in response...

Firstly, just to say that I think dangerous territory and thorny issues provide excellent meat for discussion :-)

In the rich 'kaleidoscope' of SEND and the equally multi-faceted and slippery world of music technology, it can sometimes be difficult to find solid bearings to inform focussed discussion and understanding. For me, the gauntlet thrown down by The OHMI Trust in respect of music technology - that it should facilitate undifferentiated participation to the same extent as any conventional instrument through full musical expression but with the use of only one hand or less - is really useful to help frame our thinking about how music tech can be used by disabled people in live performance (as opposed to music production). OHMI aren't trying to provide some kind of complete answer, just a very clear and challenging piece of the jigsaw. It certainly gets my brain going!

I am an active advocate of the usefulness of all kinds of hi & lo-tech equipment for accessible music making. Indeed, together with Jonathan Westrup I created Drake Music's 'Lo-tech music making on a shoe-string' training course, and have promoted the use of scratchy old 'Big Mack' switches for accessible singing through Sing Up. I use everything and anything (almost including the kitchen sink) in my work with young disabled people. But that doesn't mean I think that what we have in 2015 is good enough. In terms of assistive and expressive musical instruments for live playing in real time, I think that much of what we currently have at our disposal is pretty rubbish and there's still a long way to go not only to give young disabled musicians more scope for music making, but also to give music educators and teachers technology that is more musical, easier to set up and less expensive.

To engage with each of your points in turn:

"Why should electronic instruments necessarily aspire to the functionality associated with some acoustic instruments? There are many traditional instruments across the world with very limited functionality which have been used for centuries in totally valid music making contexts."

For me it's not the functionality, but the facility for satisfactory expression that is lacking in many existing accessible electronic instruments. They make sounds and can play notes, but there is very limited scope to vary the tone, the articulation, the relative velocity of each individual note in ways that are accessible to disabled people with a range of different physical needs. Of course, this is not to say that electronic music which is lacking in expression or is not played live is not 'valid'. I enjoy all kinds of weird, wonderful and loud electronic musics. It's just that it would be good for disabled musicians to have more expressive options.

"There are so many of our disabled students who will never be able to engage with instruments where mechanical manipulation is a factor. Electronics provides the only viable opportunities they will have."

Absolutely - and this is why, for me, we need to find ways for electronics to offer more real-time, accessible expression that can be played using any part of the body.

"Music made using electronics and synthesized sounds does not have to conform to the criteria and benchmarks embodied in the paradigm of western classical music. These parameters are not to be thought of as a hegemony for all musics."

Definitely agree. One of the things that excites me most about this work is the potential for totally new musical forms to be created. OHMI aren't suggesting that electronic music has to conform to western classical music, just that this paradigm throws down a useful challenge that can provoke instrument makers into moving music technology on.

Anyway, I hope that in a year or so you can hold OpenUp Music directly to account for all this if we are successful in funding the next stage of development for our 'Open Musical Instruments'. Over the last two years we've created a bunch of prototypes through our 'Open School Orchestra' projects which we aim to turn into robust finished products. Fingers crossed, watch this space...

timswingler's picture

Here's the thorniest issue for me: "the criteria and benchmarks embodied in the paradigm of western classical music......are not to be thought of as a hegemony for all musics". This sounds fine, providing we accept a key assumption (and this is one that has informed the entire community music idea of the past 35 years, promulgated as often as not by career arts administrators and pseudo academics rather than actual musicians) which is this: western classical music does NOT to any degree constitute a pinnacle of artistic achievement, creative genius, cultural richness, depth and complexity, nor does it offer possibilities for musical experience which are uniquely profound. If we agree with this, then everything's lovely. But, if we don't, there's still some way to go, because accepting the relativistic model simply perpetuates a situation in which access to serious and great music is the preserve of the privileged few. It's 'the facility for satisfactory expression' which David talks about which is the key challenge here.

mhildred's picture

I think the development of new repertoire is very important. Evelyn Glennie has really pioneered this for percussion and that has subsequently had a huge impact on the acceptance of solo percussionists in the classical world. I think it helps a larger audience appreciate the flexibility and possibilities of new electronic instruments.

Doug Bott's picture

The repertoire issue is key, and very telling. There must surely be some PHDs on the issue of whether or not electronic instruments / technologies have developed new live performance repertoire to any significant extent? Clearly music tech has had a huge impact on how music is recorded, created and produced. I love hip-hop, dance music, electronica, and I love listening to artists like Clark largely because I am in awe of and emotionally moved by the production - how on earth does he get it all to sound like that?! But beyond this, beyond sampling, sequencing and other electronic forms that are tied to the play-head moving across the screen at a fixed bpm, have electronic musical instruments really given birth to much significant new repertoire in the realm of real-time live performance on AN instrument? I'm not sure... There are opportunities here and, who knows, maybe disabled musicians will nail it before anyone else.

John Finney's picture

One area to focus on is the physical gesture and how the mediating technology is able to translate this into a sonic gesture creating a feedback loop. In what ways does the device facilitate this?

Steve Hawker's picture

Interesting debate! A lot depends on the ability range of the people you work with. With the PMLD group below music tech really helped with cause and effect, purposeful action, taking turns and enjoying sound together as a group:
https://youtu.be/t-S_sQIO_PA

With higher ability ranges or kids at risk of exclusion etc, I find using Wii remotes and Kinect controller can provide a genuinely expressive and subtle musical instrument for turning gesture into music. (No video permissions for this work yet, so here's one of me using them):
https://youtu.be/9amuOeTiSs0

mhildred's picture

It's interesting that the first video shows the Skoog in use. The physically modelled instruments in this are very expressive and the Skoog very sensitive to the pressure applied (varying the characteristics of sound with different pressure). It also has inbuilt limitations (number of notes, how it can be played) so in that respect reflects a traditional instrument.

Maybe part of the problem is that we give people too much choice and the ability to change and configure technology in too many ways.

David Ashworth's picture

Great videos, Steve!

Thanks for sharing - recommended viewing for all following this debate.....

Barry Farrimond's picture

Thanks very much for this David, I love this debate, it has really got me thinking!

As the Technical Director for OpenUp Music the employment and development of accessible music technology is my stock in trade, it's something that I have dedicated a large part of my professional life to and something I feel very passionate about. I should start by saying that I totally get what you are communicating in your post and agree that there is value in low-tech musical instruments. But I also believe it is essential that high end solutions are created and made available, despite the significant challenges that their creation and application may present.

As we all know SEN/D, music and technology are nebulous fields - it's almost impossible to talk about all three of them simultaneously in any meaningful way unless you reduce things a little. For that reason I will limit my response to certain key criteria. In regard to SEN/D I’m going to frame this around someone who experiences extremely limited mobility but has no associated learning difficulties. In regard to music I’m imagining live performance within an ensemble. Now we can start to think about appropriate technology.

Over the past 7 years I have all too often witnessed young musicians like this performing with technology that has absolutely failed to challenge them as a performer, myself as an audience member or the expectations of those around them. And expectation is the key thing here, I believe that we need to expect more from young people like this and part of that involves having high expectations for the music they make and the musical instruments (technology) that they perform on.

"Electronic instruments should aspire to the functionality associated with some acoustic instruments" because the way in which an acoustic instrument like a guitar allows an accomplished musician to accurately and predictably navigate its pitch, amplitude and timbre is utterly inspiring. And ultimately those are the only variables anything that makes sound has - pitch, amplitude and timbre - from a neolithic bone flute through to a granular synthesiser. Providing access to high degrees of control over those three dimensions is for me a hallmark of a good musical instrument - unfortunately many accessible music technologies totally miss that mark. I can think of several examples, some that are also incredibly expensive, that offer the musician no control over dynamics or timbre.

Now of course there are "many traditional instruments across the world with very limited functionality which have been used for centuries in totally valid music making contexts” - but I'd argue that the development of the Cello didn't invalidate the Clave, it just opened up new possibilities and raised musical expectations. It seems to me that being restricted to playing an instrument of limited functionality just because you are disabled sends out a potentially dangerous message. I don’t want to undermine the validity of less complex musical instruments or question their value within the musical landscape. But I do want our sector to really start pushing to develop and deploy high-end accessible musical instruments as part of the package. Young disabled musicians for whom it is appropriate deserve the option of a challenging, but accessible, musical instrument.

Clearly the development and deployment of this type of instrument brings challenges of its own for software developers and music practitioners. It’s hard to develop expressive musical instruments for those who perform using only their eyes. It can also be difficult to bring complex bits of technology like this into your practice if accessible music technology isn't your forte. But despite these challenges it is possible and I would argue absolutely necessary if we are working with "disabled students who will never be able to engage with instruments where mechanical manipulation is a factor” and for whom “electronics provides the only viable opportunities they will have”. As you allude to in this point, for these musicians these types of technology are fundamental, not some bolt on aspect of their musical experience or potential.

As I have said, I agree that there is value in the provision of low-tech, but that mustn't be all there is. If we accept a lack of functionality, expression and quality within the instruments we are providing because the challenges associated with not doing that appear too great, we risk failing the musical potential of these young musicians.

mhildred's picture

I think there are a couple of issues here. One, that I've been caught out by before, is concentrating too much on trying to push those boundaries for new, expressive instruments with cutting edge research. There are so many people in schools and homes across the country who still don't have access to basic music making technology. I think this is partially what David is pointing out. We can get too carried away with our own brilliance and miss the fact that time, money, training and effort needs to be put into this level.

That's not to say that there should not be a range of instruments available and I totally agree that having the ability to create expressive sounds from assistive music technology should be aspired to. I'm afraid that we do ask a lot of a product as soon as it involves technology. We want it to be flexible for a range of users, yet easy to use. Instantly able to produce a pleasant sound, yet capable of infinite expression. If I pick up a trumpet I would probably be unable to get a sound of it, yet I don't consider that a fault of the instrument. If I do the same with a music app I almost instantly discard it.

Another aspect of this development of instruments is who pays for the work? Having spent the last 15 years working on the commercial side of instrument/access development I know that the cost vs the audience size is often very difficult to justify to investors and managers. That is one of the reasons why assistive music technology is so expensive and also why you'll often find manufacturers selling their hardware/software as the 'solution' to SEN/D music. Marketing, websites, demos, videos, manuals, EMC testing, enclosure design and tooling all cost money that has to be recouped. Compromises often have to be made, features omitted or long development roadmaps implemented in order to get anything to market. Most of us working in this area have had to battle to get any kind of product out of the door and into the hands of people who need it.

For me the danger of the comments that kicked off David's post is that they get disseminated to a wide audience, taken out of context of the original discussion and end up damaging the years of work that have already taken place in developing the accessible assistive musical tools that we currently have. Doug commented that '...much of what we currently have at our disposal is pretty rubbish...' which does not really incentivise anyone to invest more time and money in developing their products when their current efforts are dismissed so easily.

Doug Bott's picture

Hey Mark, I totally appreciate your views (take on board the cautionary note against hubris) and massively respect the effort that goes into development. As you point out, there is a danger in things being taken out of context and I was very careful to target my 'rubbish' comment thus: "In terms of assistive and expressive musical instruments for live playing in real time, I think that much of what we currently have at our disposal is pretty rubbish.." So it's the golden combination of 1) assistive + 2) expressive + 3) live playing in real time (as opposed to, for example, triggering pre-made loops or samples) that I'm targeting, and I don't at-all underestimate how difficult that is to achieve for instrument makers! Doesn't mean it's not worth going for though :-) Later I qualify this further by saying that what I believe is lacking in many existing accessible electronic instruments is that "They make sounds and can play notes, but there is very limited scope to vary the tone, the articulation, the relative velocity of each individual note in ways that are accessible to disabled people with a range of different physical needs." Of course, as per David's central argument, there's a great deal of music making that AMT can facilitate despite this, which has been my bread & butter for years as I'm sure it has for many of us.

timswingler's picture

Very interesting comments about the question of expressivity Barry. I do want to point out that with Soundbeam (the only technology I'm really qualified to talk about) the player does have the facility to control timbral and other parameters (not just notes) such as vibrato, chorus, attack, volume and so forth in real time - the limitations of rendering this through MIDI notwithstanding. But here's the thing: I have never come across anyone, in training, workshops, classroom sessions or performance, who actually avails themselves of this feature. Whether it's because this functionality is too deeply embedded in the interface, too difficult to programme, or simply doesn't work satisfactorily in a musical sense, is open to debate.

mhildred's picture

Tim, I think the issue is how these settings are presented to the user. With a traditional instrument they are inherent to playing it, not an additional feature that is turned on or off.

I feel that most of the time we trade this expressivity for the flexibility in terms of sounds and accessibility of the technology. Often an organisation will want to use a Soundbeam for a large, diverse, cross-section of users and hence people concentrate on how to adapt it to suit all those needs.

There is also the issue that you don't often find 'Soundbeam musicians', 'Skoog musicians' etc in the same way that you might find a specialist music teacher who plays a specific instrument. A one or two day training course is the most that anyone can expect to get before being expected to teach the instrument to a new user. You don't find that with traditional instruments.

Phil Heeley's picture

Thanks David for launching this debate and it’s great to see all the passionate responses.

Indulge me please for one moment - I love technology as it has enabled me to access the wonderful world of music making and performing solo and with others. Having failed to learn an instrument in a traditional music education, on my 18th birthday I was fortunate enough to receive a Casio VL Tone from my mum – more of a toy than an instrument but it enabled me to play melodies, record them and play them back in the rhythm that I chose. I also discovered I could change the nature of the sound with the ASDR settings, something which was completely new to me. This was a life changing moment that has led me on a wonderful journey of discovery and expression. For the last 35 years I have explored as many pieces of music technology as I could get my hands on. Not just for my own personal pleasure, but also for the people with whom I was working at different times.

So for me it is more about access than expression - participation and inclusion being life affirming and vital elements of the human condition. http://bit.ly/1TkQvpO I have not concentrated on mastering the Soundbeam, Skoog, AlphaSphere, Orbit, Thumbjam, iKaossilator, Beamz or any other piece of music technology but if wanted to I would and if a disabled person I was working with wanted to I would attempt to facilitate that. As Tim said the Soundbeam has a wealth of expressive possibilities over the midi protocol but it is rarely used. The seemingly simple Skoog can be pressed, squeezed, rubbed, stroked to control how sounds can be manipulated. Music apps costing under a fiver can have immense expressive possibilities and every day new ones are being created which define add to our notions of what expression can sound like.

It is important to detach our own agenda from that of the people with whom we work. Music is personal - what I think is emotional, musical, expressive etc may not be shared by you or anyone else. So whilst we may disagree let’s continue to do what we each do best – motivated and informed by our own experience and journey but keep listening, not only to each other but to each and every one of the unique individuals with whom we have the privilege of working.

Interestingly when Intel finished Stephen Hawking’s upgrade for his voice computer in December last year he did not want more expression for his voice he was more interested in speed and the ability to more effectively communicate with family and friends. http://dailym.ai/1JOi5dq

RWolffsohn's picture

It is great to have such a lively debate on this issue, thanks to David for kicking it off! Here are some of my thoughts on the points raised:

"Why should electronic instruments necessarily aspire to the functionality associated with some acoustic instruments?"

Well perhaps they shouldn't, but equally those functions have developed over hundreds of years because people felt they were beneficial to the quality of the music. We do live in a much more instant age where people don't want to work hard to develop any skills but want to pick up things and run with them. We should consider whether this makes us satisfied with the results though. As has been said before electronic instruments can do things that acoustic instruments can't. The argument coming from OHMI on this topic was that people with disabilities shouldn't have to restrict their choice to electronic instruments but should have the option to do both or either as they choose. At the moment a physical disability makes it extremely difficult (and expensive) to participate in music using acoustic instruments.

"There are many traditional instruments across the world with very limited functionality which have been used for centuries in totally valid music making contexts."

Absolutely true, but sometimes even simple instruments can be used with a huge amount of skill. Someone quoted Evelyn Glennie earlier, give her a pair of claves and see what comes out. It would be a hugely varied output despite the simplicity of the instrument because of her creativity, skill and control. Limited functionality in acoustic instruments doesn't always limit the performance in the same way as simple electronic instruments.

"There are so many of our disabled students who will never be able to engage with instruments where mechanical manipulation is a factor. Electronics provides the only viable opportunities they will have."

Absolutely true, which is why we need to make the electronic instruments the best we possibly can to give those students the best options for participating in music making at the highest level.

"Music made using electronics and synthesized sounds does not have to conform to the criteria and benchmarks embodied in the paradigm of western classical music. These parameters are not to be thought of as a hegemony for all musics."

This is true also, but if we don't make acoustic instruments playable by those with physical disabilities then we are excluding all western classical music from their options too. I am guessing that the majority of people reading and contributing this post started learning an acoustic instrument in school and have developed their musical preferences from there. I also imagine that the majority of people at all levels participating in music on a weekly basis are using acoustic instruments and mixing with others doing the same. Most towns in the UK have orchestras, jazz bands, wind bands, folk groups etc etc etc. Without the right instruments students with physical disabilities are denied access to the social and emotional benefits of all these type of groups.

Perhaps the link with parasport could be applied here. No one there says team sports are better than individual pursuits, or that any sports are beyond people with disabilities. They have worked very effectively to make suitable equipment for all who wish to participate, created new sports where necessary and we have all celebrated the achievements of those who were successful. Music should be the same or perhaps even better. For some people with the right instruments (think of David Nabb and Felix Klieser) there doesn't even need to be a 'paralympics'. For others accessible equipment will enable them to participate to the best of their ability. For all we need to ensure that the power and benefits of music are available to everyone. Humans are very creative beings and we understand very little about how their input over a musical 'tool' influences the output. Many current electronic instruments limit that creative instinct significantly at the moment and therefore limit the possibilities for disabled musicians who necessarily are limited to performing with electronic instruments.

RWolffsohn's picture

It is great to have such a lively debate on this issue, thanks to David for kicking it off! Here are some of my thoughts on the points raised:

"Why should electronic instruments necessarily aspire to the functionality associated with some acoustic instruments?"

Well perhaps they shouldn't, but equally those functions have developed over hundreds of years because people felt they were beneficial to the quality of the music. We do live in a much more instant age where people don't want to work hard to develop any skills but want to pick up things and run with them. We should consider whether this makes us satisfied with the results though. As has been said before electronic instruments can do things that acoustic instruments can't. The argument coming from OHMI on this topic was that people with disabilities shouldn't have to restrict their choice to electronic instruments but should have the option to do both or either as they choose. At the moment a physical disability makes it extremely difficult (and expensive) to participate in music using acoustic instruments.

"There are many traditional instruments across the world with very limited functionality which have been used for centuries in totally valid music making contexts."

Absolutely true, but sometimes even simple instruments can be used with a huge amount of skill. Someone quoted Evelyn Glennie earlier, give her a pair of claves and see what comes out. It would be a hugely varied output despite the simplicity of the instrument because of her creativity, skill and control. Limited functionality in acoustic instruments doesn't always limit the performance in the same way as simple electronic instruments.

"There are so many of our disabled students who will never be able to engage with instruments where mechanical manipulation is a factor. Electronics provides the only viable opportunities they will have."

Absolutely true, which is why we need to make the electronic instruments the best we possibly can to give those students the best options for participating in music making at the highest level.

"Music made using electronics and synthesized sounds does not have to conform to the criteria and benchmarks embodied in the paradigm of western classical music. These parameters are not to be thought of as a hegemony for all musics."

This is true also, but if we don't make acoustic instruments playable by those with physical disabilities then we are excluding all western classical music from their options too. I am guessing that the majority of people reading and contributing this post started learning an acoustic instrument in school and have developed their musical preferences from there. I also imagine that the majority of people at all levels participating in music on a weekly basis are using acoustic instruments and mixing with others doing the same. Most towns in the UK have orchestras, jazz bands, wind bands, folk groups etc etc etc. Without the right instruments students with physical disabilities are denied access to the social and emotional benefits of all these type of groups.

Perhaps the link with parasport could be applied here. No one there says team sports are better than individual pursuits, or that any sports are beyond people with disabilities. They have worked very effectively to make suitable equipment for all who wish to participate, created new sports where necessary and we have all celebrated the achievements of those who were successful. Music should be the same or perhaps even better. For some people with the right instruments (think of David Nabb and Felix Klieser) there doesn't even need to be a 'paralympics'. For others accessible equipment will enable them to participate to the best of their ability. For all we need to ensure that the power and benefits of music are available to everyone. Humans are very creative beings and we understand very little about how their input over a musical 'tool' influences the output. Many current electronic instruments limit that creative instinct significantly at the moment and therefore limit the possibilities for disabled musicians who necessarily are limited to performing with electronic instruments.

David Ashworth's picture

Rachel

The point you are missing is that whilst OHMI is definitely doing some wonderful work for some SEND students, there are some you are never going to be able to reach. You are an important part of the jigsaw, but there are other pieces we need to consider.

For example the profoundly disabled student, I referred to at the Bristol seminar, who can only flicker an eyelash. Or the other young girl I have worked with who can tilt her head about three inches….and that is it. There is nothing you or anyone can do to enable these students to even hold a pair of claves, let alone done anything clever with them. And as for coming up with a gizmo that will allow them to play violins in Shostakovich 7th…..? And I don’t see them warming up for an Olympic triathalon any time soon.

But they both do wonderful things with the technologies that are available to us now. Honestly, they make genuinely beautiful music. This second girl played in a large scale concert with a very accomplished mainstream jazz band. She took an improvised solo on a Soundbeam and nearly blew them off the stage. Her timing was spot on and her phrasing was immaculate.

Yes we will always want better gear for our students, but some of them are doing amazingly musical things with what we’ve got already.

RWolffsohn's picture

I'm not missing that point at all. No single approach will work for all people with SEN/D. It is vital that a huge range of organisations each work on different areas of music to meet the needs of the different people out there. OHMI are primarily are focussing on those with an upper limb physical disability and for our specific challenge the electronic field is not there yet. There may well come a time when that is different.

Back to my sports analogy that is why the Paralympics has specific categories to serve the needs of all who participate.

David Ashworth's picture

Doug and Barry both make compelling arguments for instruments that allow you to control three expressive elements - dynamics, articulation and tone as well as pitch. No doubt about it – these are the things which make instruments more expressive. And for some of our students, we need to find ways that will allow them to explore these additional dimensions.

The challenge we have is this: to control four musical features simultaneously, I need to have control of four different movements or gestures which I can trigger simultaneously, in real time. So when I play a phrase on my guitar, I have to:

• place a LH finger at the correct fret
• adjust the pressure of the RH fingers to control the dynamics
• move my right hand to different points along the string to vary the tone
• slide or hammer a LH finger for slurs or glissandi

Many of the students I have worked with will simply not have the physical and mental capacity to control their motor movements to this degree. Whatever the interface, mechanical or electronic, they will not be able to control up to four different parameters simultaneously. This is perhaps the main reason why students do not take advantage of the expressive possibilities afforded by Soundbeam, for example.

However all is not lost. They may not be able to explore the expressive potential of solo music making, but they can still get considerable musical satisfaction in other ways.

Much music making does not have to centre around the expressive control of individual instruments. It is about the joy of making music with others, with a receptive audience - at the right time and in the right place. Sometimes just bashing out the notes is all you need, if these other factors are in place. So for example, playing in carnival and street bands, folk musics all over the world and dance bands. I have been privileged to see some of the world’s finest classical ensembles play in some of our best concert halls, but I would gladly have traded some of these experiences in exchange for tickets for the Sex Pistols’ Free Trade Hall gig, or the Beatles bashing out “I Saw Her Standing There” in The Cavern.

So for those students for whom ‘expressive’ playing is likely to be too big a challenge, we need to provide these other dimensions – playing music with others, for receptive audiences [who might be encouraged to join in by singing and dancing] in venues and at events which are appropriate and inspiring.

Doug Bott's picture

Hi David,

in closing, 2 final comments :)

1. There's a tendency for people to link expression solely with classical music, but of course most other music played by humans in real time is expressive, whether solo or in an ensemble (including street bands, folk, the Beatles and the Sex Pistols) because whether they're bashing it out or not, and whether they're playing a Stradivarius violin or a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar turned up to 11, each and every note played by each musician is slightly different to the previous one.

2. Yes it's a huge challenge to get assistive technology controlling multiple musical features simultaneously with minimal movement, ideally in an instinctive way that 'flows' with the movements and the sounds and isn't too difficult for a music educator to set up. We're currently working on it so hopefully you can hold OpenUp Music to account in a year or so. (Sticking our necks out here and noting Mark's cautionary note about hubris!)

Ultimately, as you say, joy and playing music with others the thing, and as we have been celebrating here, the totally brilliant thing about music technology that most other instruments simply can't do is that it can be tailored to so many different levels of ability.

Signing off, over and out...

Duncan's picture

HI folks
And some very interesting things here.
Picking up on Dave's statement

"This is dangerous territory that raises all sorts of thorny issues: "

I'm not sure that it is "dangerous" at all BUT a challenge to examine exactly WHAT we are giving people access to?

Some of the more interesting things in electronic music and sound art in the last 10 years have come from those involved with the whole hardware/software hacking scene. Taking a "sound based" as opposed to "note based" (with a nod to Leigh Landy) approach to creating music with all kinds of groups and individuals has, for me, always been more interesting than trying to emulate something that already exists.

If you go (and you really should if you get the chance, if not for the instruments but for the cafe on the roof!) to the Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels you can see all the prototype Saxophones that Adolphe Sax made before settling on a version he was happy with. The saxophone was invented as a portable instrument primarily for military bands, "Jazz" didn't exist, it was only when it got into the hands of folks outside the intended users that it really began to find it's voice. The same is maybe true of other instruments. Sometimes the things that happen "by mistake" (scratching records?) are more interesting than the things intended.

David Ashworth's picture

Now that this blog has had over 3000 views, I thought it might be a good time to add some sort of conclusion to the discussions that have been happening here. [But please - go on adding comments if you want!].

What these comments show is that, across our community, we are all on the same hymn sheet – it’s just that some of us are singing different verses. But we need all these verses to complete the song.

It also shows that the world of SEND and music technology in the UK is a rich and vibrant place with lots of expertise and dedicated people. Indeed, I can’t think of anywhere outside the UK where these types of discussions might be taking place.

But at the moment, we are all working in our own boxes, with not that much ongoing communication and collaboration going on between us. I sometimes think we could perhaps achieve more if we were to come together in one big organisation. This organisation could coordinate research and development, leverage funding, lobby effectively, organize comprehensive pilot projects and market and distribute ‘assets’.

This is probably not a realistic proposal at the moment and there is a danger with large organisations that they become unwieldy, losing the flexibility of smaller, more focused units. However, there is probably much to be gained by researchers, manufacturers and practitioners working more closely together. Perhaps setting up a confederation, where organisations such as those represented in these discussions could come together on a regular basis to support and coordinate the valuable work that is and should be taking place.

mhildred's picture

I think some coordination would be great and it's something we have tried before. There used to be the 'Ensemble Research' group that met at the University of York in the 90's. It linked all these people together once or twice a year - academics, researchers, students, businesses, charities and end-users. Many of the people I met at those meetings are still people I keep in contact with and continue to be huge supporters of accessible assistive music technology.

More recently we began to setup an organisation based at the University of Huddersfield, although this lacked any funding to maintain the momentum required.

It would be great if we could somehow pull everyone together - if for no other reason than to avoid duplication of resources and development.

RWolffsohn's picture

In the last month we have attended conferences bringing people focussed on SEN/D and music together in the South West (Fast Forward in Bristol) and South East (Breaking the Bubble in London) in both cases organised by music hubs I believe. These things are happening but something national would be good. I very much like David's analogy with singing from the same hymn sheet but we need all the verses. I guess one orchestra to accompany the singing would be a single body linking all these different verses together and that is what we are lacking currently. I do think there is a lot of interest on the ground (evidenced in this post being shared 3000 times for a start!), but not so much support from funders and those higher up the chain. Is this something that Youth Music or the Arts Council could pull together? They should have a national view of what is going on and what needs to be done to progress. The OHMI Trust is working nationally but currently on a small scale. OpenUp Music are working towards a national youth orchestra for accessible instruments. Who else?

HallamR's picture

Absolutely fabulous to have all these responses and interest and delighted to be able to confirm that the Music Education Council is working nationally with colleagues to pull this all together. Indeed, both David and Phil Heeley, along with other colleagues on a range of topics that are key to the future of music education, made important contributions to the discussions in the summer seminars that the MEC ran in Leeds and London. And the Bristol event was indeed a national event, run in partnership with the MEC along with others.

There has been a consultation running over the summer leading to a MEC executive meeting next Thursday at which further plans and actions will be proposed.

Youth Music's own Matt Griffiths is a member of the MEC executive and this forum of the Youth Music Network is certainly seen as being one of the key media through which conversations and discussions can take place and actions can be implemented.

Fiona Pendreigh will be facilitating SEND and Chris Walters will be facilitating Music Technology, ensuring there is cross over as and when appropriate.

In the meantime, if anyone wishes to know more about what the MEC is doing, feel free to email me at halla@globalnet.co.uk or phone on 07850 634239

Dick Hallam MBE
Chair MEC