Social music network helps disabled

Grant used to overcome physical, distance barriers
David Whalen uses breath control with the Jamboxx device he developed to play music.
David Whalen uses breath control with the Jamboxx device he developed to play music.

Categories: Entertainment

The intersection of technology and art can lead to some incredibly beautiful things, bringing people together in dynamic ways. But the power to create a social music network for disabled musicians, or those hoping to become one, is something new entirely, and in the works here locally.

As part of an initiative run by RPI’s Center for Cognition, Communications and Culture (CCC), in concert with the International Symposium on Adaptive Technology for Music and Art (ISATMA), a team of experts are working to develop technology that will help disabled students perform as part of a school ensemble, and, more broadly, help disabled persons perform together via the Internet.

Through the support of a $100,000 grant from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, which has dedicated itself to funding research to improve the quality of life for people living with spinal cord injury, the team aims to shrink physical barriers and create an entirely new level of inclusivity.

According to CCC Director Jonas Braasch, PhD, it’s a matter of connecting people in a meaningful way, while enabling them to access something that might otherwise be out of reach. “There’s a need to have the tools to express yourself in an artistic sense, a desire to be creative,” he said, which is true for all of us, disabled or not.
He and his teammates are looking to fill that need.

“The aim of this project is two things,” Braasch said. “To set up people [with this technology] that did not know that it exists, and to create a platform where people would have access to this latest technology.”

That technology is the Jamboxx, the brainchild of David Whalen, an attorney, quadriplegic and entrepreneur based in Glenville. The harmonica-like computer interface is a multi-tool of sorts, and can be used as a musical instrument, paint brush or game controller.

The inspiration behind it, Whalen said, was a desire to “figure out a way for people with quadriplegia or other types of disabilities that can’t utilize a traditional musical instrument, to be able to find dexterity.”

Utilizing breath control, it allows the user to trigger various types of sounds, from saxophone to electric guitar or even keyboard. Available for purchase online for $399, the device knows few bounds.

Whalen believes that this project will make a difference for people around the world living with spinal cord injuries, and others grappling with MS or ALS, for example. It’s an incredible means for people with even the highest-level physical disability, to “engage in freedom of expression and enjoyment,” he said.

“We wanted to work on physical hardware that would allow people to [go] beyond [being] a listener and to be able to actively engage, learn, develop and actually play music,” Whalen said.

The team aims to combine this technology with a social platform, as a means of overcoming both disability and distance: “To enable artists for their creative expression, [to give them] a very different way to interact with the world,” Braasch added. He envisions the formation of jam bands and the launch of international concerts, with musicians playing from the four corners of the world.

Whalen said he hopes to provide an Internet-based software platform which would make real-time collaboration and group performances possible, without the sort of delays typical over Skype, for example.

As part of the endeavor, the team is also exploring how the Jamboxx can be used in classrooms, to enable disabled students to play alongside their classmates. But first, they need to develop a downloadable manual, as Braasch is adamant that there be absolutely no textbooks: “Schools with a small budget, we don’t want that to be hurdle.”

Music theory will be part of the instruction, but Whalen said that the programming would also facilitate recreational play and improvisation.

Keith Pray, a saxophonist, composer and band director for Schenectady High School, is actively working on a manual, with the hopes of having a complete, tested version ready by next fall when kids resume classes. The initiative plans to formally launch it at the next ISATMA gathering, which will be held Oct. 20–22 at RPI.
This manual will “open the door,” for a disabled student to play in an ensemble, by providing the instructor with the capacity and understanding to instruct his or her student, Pray said. That means an education in both music theory and rhythms.

He hopes that the manual will simplify both use and instruction to an extent that educators will embrace having a non-traditional instrument in their classroom — which is an exciting prospect, he said.

“Because of Jamboxx functionality, people with [limited or no use of their hands] are able to not only enjoy music on a surface level, [like] basic songs and jamming,

but can possibly develop the skills to take on more challenging music,” Pray said. Which means it’s intended for both the hobbyist, and the passionate musician.

The team hopes that this initiative will empower those with physical disabilities to get creative, express themselves and make music together, and by the same turn, change our perspective on what’s possible.

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