Adaptive Music Technology For Physically Disabled Students

Classroom Desks

Certain physical disabilities or injuries caused by birth defects or traumatic events can lead people to believe that the door to being an instrumental musician is one that has been permanently closed.  How could a person with only hand possibly play a violin?  How can a person with one arm play the saxophone?   Yet these discouraging situations occasionally carry with them inspirational solutions.  Those solutions lie with three interconnected pieces, first in the man or woman who crafts the instrument that allows that musician to flourish, second in the musician who must find the conviction to succeed, and finally in the teacher with the patience and dedication to help guide the student along his or her musical path.

3D Printed Prosthetic Helps Student Play Violin

Bette Gawinski, a string teacher in a northern Virginia school district is one such teacher.  When a student (we’ll call him Jacob) entered her classroom with a deformity of his bow hand Bette set off to find a way to help him participate.  Problems such as Jacob’s are actually more common than one might expect, and the solution to helping the student usually tends to be unique or custom crafted prosthetic.    

One evening  shortly after Jacob joined Gawinski’s class she saw a news report on a pair of brothers whose startup company named Brother Robot had been using 3D printing techniques to craft a basic prosthetic hand for a man in their community.  She contacted the brothers to ask if they could help and after some discussion soon a handheld scanner was sent to make a special three dimensional scan of Jacob’s hand.  Using that scan data the brothers are currently designing a prosthetic and they hope to have a working prototype for Jacob to try in the near future with the hope of allowing him to play the viola.

While 3D printing applications such as this one is becoming more common, some physical disabilities require much more in depth modifications and attention to detail. Some adaptations such as reorienting a brass instrument’s valves to a more ergonomic position are fairly simple compared to the major modifications undertaken by Jeff Stelling,owner of Stelling Brass and Winds in Kearney, NE.  Stelling was the long time friend of Dr. David Nabb, Professor of Music at the University of Nebraska Kearney.  When Nabb lost the use of his left arm due to complications from a severe illness he had thought his career might be over.  But Stelling, over the course of more than a year redesigned an alto sax in a way that allows Nabb to play it with only his right hand.  Other one handed saxophones have been made by other craftsmen, but are normally very limited in range or capabilities.  Stelling’s was unique in that it allowed Nabb to play again with the full range of notes, technique, and finesse that he had had before his illness.

Adapting Musical Instruments To Specific Physical Needs

Another kind of modification is one which simply serves to make the instrument more ergonomic for a given student without physically modifying the instrument itself.  Adam Goldberg, Instrumental Music Instructor at P177Q in Queens, NY says, “For some students specialized stands, clamps, or other fixed ways of holding the instrument can help immensely.  Look for different kinds of mounts for the instrument so that they won’t have to hold them in a traditional way.  Other examples would be where in a string class you could try to create a situation where they don’t necessarily have to manipulate their fingers on a fretboard by using open tunings.”

Sometimes modifications can be made with common, everyday materials.  Says Nabb, “This is a big part of most solutions, and instrument builders are familiar with this.  Sometimes a custom stand must be built in its entirety. Other times a small modification to a commercially available stand can work, for example I recently saw a small mount built to be attached with zip ties to a trumpet or euphonium that then can be attached to a commercially available cymbal stand.”  For more examples and ideas such as these The One Handed Musical Instruments Trust,  presents yearly awards for both instrument adaptations and apparatus such as these, and information about these examples are available on their website.  Stelling’s alto sax adaptation was the inaugural winner of this award back in 2013.  The Cincinnati Adaptive Music Camp is another fine source of information.

Planning and Funding Adaptations for Music Students

Regardless of the degree of modifications required, getting to that point requires large amounts of planning and communication between the various individuals that are involved. Says Nabb, “To start with you must have the needs of the musician in mind in terms of their movement and mobility.  Remember that the student isn’t always the best source of information for this.  Meet with the parents, their therapist, and if possible the instrument builder as well.”  

“Remain open-minded and have a real "heart to heart" discussion with the student and their parents to assess the situation as completely as possible.  Exactly what are their physical deficiencies, what kind of resources does the family have, etc. Most importantly, what is the motivation level of the student and the family?  Evaluate things exactly as you would for an able-bodied student, keeping in mind that musical study is very demanding, and for a person with a disability you can multiply the level of difficulty by a factor of at least 100.”

With 1200 hours of time invested in it a professional level saxophone adaptation such as the one Nabb now plays on can cost in the neighborhood of $25,000, but as mentioned previously not all adaptations must involve such extensive, time consuming, and direct modifications to the instrument.  In some cases the funding for low or moderate level adaptations can be worked into a disabled child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP).  These binding documents dictate what kinds of accommodations a student must be provided with in order to participate in certain classes.  Says Goldberg, “If participation in music is a required part of their IEP then by law some degree of IEP funding has to be provided for those adaptations in order to allow them to participate in the class.”

Sadly the IEP route is not always available to all students, and few, if any, school districts would be able to fund anything remotely like a total instrument customization.   In these cases Nabb agrees that ”obviously cost is a major issue and has to be weighed into this but we are working to make these things more affordable.”  To provide more affordable options Stelling and Nabb are actively seeking funding to manufacture a set of adapted rental clarinets, flutes, and saxes that would be made available to students who can benefit from that kind of adaptation.

When it comes to finding resources and ideas for adaptations such as these Nabb suggests that one start with a simple web search to find many different ideas and places to begin. One in particular is the previously mentioned One Handed Musical Instrument Trust, an organization dedicated specifically to this area.  

Where there is a will there is a way, and there is almost always a way to help a disabled child experience, enjoy, and excel in music.  “A lot of people are stuck in a low end rudimentary musical experience only because they really don’t realize just how much farther it might be possible to push things,”  says Stelling.  Thanks to the hard work, dedication, and determination of those around them, student musicians with physical disabilities can finally begin to move beyond the rudimentary and into the realm of the extraordinary.

This article originally appeared in NAfME's Teaching Music Magazine.  It is reposted here under agreement with NAfME by the original author.  For reprint permissions please contact NAfME.

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