by Author Dan Henchman

Published on

You are here:

OpenUp Music: an organisational case study

Bristol-based arts organisation OpenUp Music was originally founded in 2007 as the MUSE project, and relaunched under its current name in 2014. With Youth Music’s support, OpenUp has helped to transform accessible music-making for young disabled people nationwide with its groundbreaking ‘Open Orchestras’ programme.

Barry Farrimond, OpenUp’s Chief Executive and Technical Director, spoke to us about how Youth Music has supported the organisation over the years.

Learning from early trials

Back in 2007, Barry had just completed a degree in Creative Music Technology, and co-founded MUSE (Multimedia Used in Special Education) with educational psychologist Dr Duncan Gillard.

The pair set out to develop a ‘multi-sensory musical device’ for young disabled people. Their first creation was the MUSE Board: an instrument based on a large circular table divided into quarters, each with different sensors that produced sound when activated.

The MUSE Board was trialled at a local special school, where the first young person to try it out was a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy. He was unable to get his legs under the table, and couldn’t get close enough to actually play the instrument, or for the distance sensors to pick up his movements.

Lots of other pupils encountered similar difficulties. However, Barry and his team learned a lot from the failure of the MUSE Board, and it helped to establish the principles that have guided OpenUp’s work ever since.

“The main issue was that we hadn’t consulted with any young disabled people, musicians or teachers in the development of it,” says Barry. “It was large, it was heavy, it was expensive, and it required a dedicated music technologist to set the thing up.

“We needed to make a musical instrument that could adapt its layout and structure in response to the needs of the musician.”

Affordable, accessible, expressive

OpenUp first received funding from Youth Music in 2010. They formed a partnership with researchers at Cardiff Metropolitan University (CMU) and began developing a range of new accessible musical instruments in light of the feedback they’d received.

“Our partnership with the university was really productive,” says Barry, “and the investment from Youth Music was essential in getting that off the ground.”

Barry was also part of a team commissioned by Youth Music to research and write a paper on the existing and potential use of technology in special educational and disabled music settings, which helped to inform OpenUp’s work.

Music technology can be very expensive – so keeping the cost of the instruments down was one priority. Another important change was to keep the sensors detached, rather than fixed in place on the instrument, so that they could be moved to suit the musician’s needs. And the instrument also needed to give the musician the opportunity to play expressively.

“You’d see a lot of ‘switch music’ in special schools,” says Barry, “basically a big on-off switch that plays some sound when you hit it, but you can’t affect how loud or quiet that is. We felt that was quite limiting.”

Involving young people in design

OpenUp then launched the ‘Listening Aloud’ research and development programme, again supported by Youth Music and working in partnership with CMU, along with technology organisation Cariad Interactive, and three special schools across South West England.

By the end of the programme the team had developed several accessible instrument prototypes, drawing on a wide range of available technology – from iPads and iPhones through to brain activity sensors, eye-gaze tracking and 3D motion capture.

Using a process known as ‘participatory design’, OpenUp actively involved young disabled people (plus teachers, music leaders and parents) in developing, testing and re-designing the instruments – making sure the results met their needs.

“We basically said ‘we don’t know what we’re going to make, but we’re going to work with these young people to find out’,” says Barry. “The fact that Youth Music saw the value in that and showed faith in the young people has really paid off in the long run.”

A breakthrough idea

In 2012, Barry recalls: “We were working in special schools at the time, and there was a lot of excitement about the British Paraorchestra playing alongside Coldplay at the Paralympic closing ceremony.

“A teacher said in passing ‘wouldn’t it be nice if we could have a school orchestra’ – and the minute I heard that idea, I thought ‘let’s do that!’ We’d been looking for a context for all the instrument prototypes we’d made – now we had one.”

Barry’s research highlighted a real shortage of orchestral provision – and in many cases music provision in general – in special schools. With funding from Youth Music, OpenUp set out to address this issue, setting up three of the UK’s first special school orchestras in what became known as the ‘Open Orchestras’ project.

Strengthened by the addition of Doug Bott as Musical Director, OpenUp’s team of music leaders spent a year working with young people in three schools. The year ended with a performance at Bristol’s Colston Hall which was so successful it inspired the venue to launch the ‘Fast Forward’ music festival, led by disabled musicians.

Making the technology transferable

In the second year of Open Orchestras, OpenUp introduced orchestras at three additional schools and continued to test out instrument prototypes with the young disabled musicians.

However, the technology was still proving complex and difficult to operate for music leaders who weren’t already familiar with it. There was a clear need for more workforce training to avoid the music-making being overly reliant on OpenUp’s own expertise.

And likewise, the instruments themselves still required more development to make them completely reliable and usable by a musician with no previous experience.

“We wanted all special schools to have an orchestra and all young people to have the opportunity to take part,says Barry. “If we wanted to make that a reality, we had to ensure that the Open Orchestras model was transferable.”

To do this, Barry knew that OpenUp would need a robustly designed musical instrument that combined the best features of all the prototypes they’d created so far. In September 2015, OpenUp received funding from Youth Music and the Nominet Trust specifically to develop such an instrument.

The Clarion

As one of the instrument prototypes that had shown a lot of promise, the Clarion was chosen to be developed further. After a year of hard work which saw it evolve into a “really finessed, rock-solid and transferable” musical instrument, OpenUp officially launched the first version in schools in August 2016.

As Barry describes it: “In many respects it isn’t a single musical instrument at all, but a near-infinite number of instruments all contained within a single piece of musical software.”

The Clarion runs on both Mac and PC operating systems and is compatible with a wide range of assistive technology commonly used in special schools, such as eye-gaze trackers and motion sensors. This means it can be played with pretty much any part of the body – fingers, head, eyes or even feet.

The musician can lay out any number of ‘notes’ as shapes on the screen, change each note’s size, shape, position and colour, and play expressively by ‘hitting’ notes quickly or slowly and moving around within the shape. The musician can also choose the sound the instrument makes, much like on a MIDI keyboard.

This means the Clarion is entirely adaptable to the needs of the musician that’s playing it. And the fact it runs on easily available hardware means a young person can practise it at home as well as in the classroom.

“The Clarion has proved crucial to the expansion of Open Orchestras,” says Barry. “It’s by no means the only instrument our musicians use – that would be boring – but it does ensure that some of the most marginalised young disabled musicians can have access to an expressive, affordable and accessible musical instrument.”

Partnering with Music Education Hubs

OpenUp’s partnerships with Music Education Hubs have been another crucial factor in the growth of the Open Orchestras programme.

The programme now comprises a wide range of instruments, learning resources, and a growing repertoire of specially-adapted accessible pieces of music. OpenUp have developed a model where hubs pay a subscription fee to access these resources. OpenUp also train each hub’s music leaders in using the technology and provide ongoing teaching support.

“Partnering with hubs is a really good way of disseminating our learning,” says Barry. “And we’re supporting hubs in delivering each of their core and extension roles for young people that are the most marginalised and under-represented.

“In the first year (2013-14) we worked with 36 young people across three schools. Soon we’ll be working with 15 Music Education Hubs nationwide, running 24 Open Orchestras for a total of 250 young people.

“We’re able to grow like that because of the initial investment from Youth Music all those years ago – it’s all built on that.”

The South-West Open Youth Orchestra

Alongside this, OpenUp have been busy developing the South-West Open Youth Orchestra (SWOYO), the UK’s first and only disabled-led regional youth orchestra.

Delivered in partnership with the British Paraorchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Bristol Music Trust, SWOYO is open to disabled and non-disabled musicians aged 16-25. The group made its concert debut in April 2016 in the impressive surroundings of Bristol Cathedral, followed by a live performance on Radio 3 for BBC Music Day.

SWOYO’s success has helped OpenUp gain recognition including being named in the Nominet Trust 100 and New Radicals lists for 2016. The orchestra also won a Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award in the Learning and Participation category.

“It’s a programme defined by having very high expectations of what young people can achieve, and seeing the ability, not the disability,” says Barry. “It’s about seeing the barriers that are in the way of a young person trying to achieve their potential and getting rid of them.”

2017 brought further rewards for OpenUp’s pioneering work, as the organisation was awarded funding in Arts Council England’s National Portfolio for 2018-22.

The future for OpenUp Music

“In September 2018 we’re going to launch the National Open Youth Orchestra – the world’s first disabled-led national youth orchestra,” says Barry.

“That’s the future. We want to see an orchestra in every single special school, and a national open youth orchestra that’s leading the way – not just in disabled-led music, let’s just call it music! We want to normalise what we’re doing.

“Everyone has the ability to progress through music. Each individual’s progression is different, but music can always take them on that journey and support their development – and we should always expect more of them, regardless of what barriers they might face or impairments they might have.

“And for us too, as arts organisations, we have to be aware that we are providing the societal structures that these young people will either flourish or flounder in. We need to create the right environment for these young people to flourish in.”


Image from ‘The Open Musical Instrument project’. Photo by Paul Blakemore.