Yes, We Can Make Music!

He was feigning sleep....but as I stood before him, playing on my flute, he smiled and, looking up, he caught my eye. He stretched out a hand towards his instrument and joined me in improvisation. We were completely engrossed, as we listened and responded to one another in music. We could have been two musicians, anywhere, but this duet was most unusual in several respects. Terry has profound physical and learning disabilities. His "instrument" is a trackerball, accessing music software, on a computer.

"Inappropriate" had been my reaction, when the proprietress of the nursing home first approached me. Did she realise that my workshops, developed to meet the needs of people with physical and sensory disabilities, involved transporting and setting up a car-full of hi-tech equipment? "Yes", she had heard that! Cautiously, I had agreed to run a six-week series of exploratory workshops. Everything was to be flexible and open to negotiation between myself and the carers.... br>

... The first workshop started, like most other introductory sessions, with activities to foster group identity. In fact, I had decided to proceed as I would with any other group, until I met with counter-indications After all, if you don't try it, how do you know it won't work? Surprisingly (for me, that is!) there was a strong group atmosphere and a remarkable degree of attention. I continued by playing the flute to a rapt audience...(OK! They can't talk...but don't imagine that means they are, necessarily, quiet!) and then offering each the opportunity to "play the flute" by rolling the computer's trackerball. As the ball was moved the notes of a musical scale were sounded by synthesised pan-pipes. Some youngsters can barely move a finger but the trackerball responds to the tiniest of movements. At first I, or a carer, moved the ball "hand-over-hand" to pattern the movement and I did not expect much independent involvement, at this stage. However, I was greatly encouraged to find that several of the youngsters did make a little autonomous movement, although I could not be sure that they were aware of cause and effect.... br>

There were enough positive responses, in that first session, to convince me that the technology was far from inappropriate. I just didn't have enough of it! There was nothing for it but to place an immediate order for a "Touch-switch", which would respond to the slightest skin contact. This would give each the opportunity to make things happen, or not, according to personal choice. br>

One young man learnt that "Tick-tock" on the claves was a signal that the nursery rhyme was our next item and he would laugh, delightedly. One of the girls exhibited a sense of humour by waiting until I made as if to withdraw the switch from her, then triggering it. It took me a little while to realise that she was deliberately "winding me up". The same thing happened when I was attempting to elicit vocalisation, by means of a special microphone and effects. This time the joker was a young man who, finally, collapsed into giggles. br>

... More than a year has passed since we launched our little barque on the uncharted waters of music education for the profoundly disabled. It is time to ask serious questions about the enterprise and to evaluate progress. The sessions are extremely costly in terms of preparation and resources. So, are they worth it? br>

There was a time when these youngsters would have been among the least able of those already cast aside by the educational establishment and described as ineducable. For some of us, they represent the ultimate challenge to our assertion that a common curriculum should embrace all our children. I am accumulating much data demonstrating that even people with this degree of disability, have musical skills which can be developed by an appropriate educational programme. In addition, it is enormously rewarding to see these, profoundly disabled, young people making choices and exerting some control over their surroundings. br>

...The session is drawing to a close: Jeremy, who wears a helmet with a wire chin guard to prevent him self-mutilating, is banging it on the tray of his wheelchair. As I change the tempo of my flute playing, he adapts to keep time with me. I slip a pressure pad switch under his chin and let him take the lead. He laughs a lot, as we make surprising changes in tempo. Each time he strikes the pad, it causes a synthesised drum to sound. Susie makes the slightest turn of her head, as her eyes seek out the source of the sound. Alan gurgles, companionably. All too soon, it is time to sing our "Goodbye" song. For the first time, Jeremy grunts a farewell! br>

*This software is 'MIDIgrid', used with specially-prepared grids from The Full Pitcher. A version, for Windows ( '98, or higher) is available from The Full Pitcher Music Resources. Custom-prepared resource CDs can also be ordered. br>

**Further information about switch access to music and wide range of MIDI switches can be obtained from. and