Bespoke instrument builder, Philip Catterall discusses his aims to inspire and motivate people with disabilities to think differently about how they can create music.
Talk to us about the biggest challenges you have faced in building this project?
Convincing able-bodied people that creating/being involved in music for people with impairments is “do-able” with inexpensive open source devices. In reality I’ve found people who have to rely on assistive technology cotton on more quickly than able-bodied people.
What’s the process like from start to finish when someone comes to you looking for a bespoke instrument?
A lot of the “generic” devices can be used directly. For example, Electric Umbrella do group sessions, so “The Electric Breadbin” can do either percussion or instrumental. It was then used with some of the big buttons playing chords, or floor pressure pads to do drums. Some of the other base units and actuators were used by Macintyre MK.
Sometime serendipity plays a part. For example, the tone circle proved accessible to Electric Umbrella clients and whilst demonstrating open source music tech at Festive Road small children found they could walk on “Tone Circle” to generate sound patterns. Also at Macintyre’s, the Talking Table I created for a local holiday club was found to engage the interest of a client with early onset Alzheimer’s.
So what about bespoke. I’m a volunteer at the National Museum of Computing and meet up with various Makerspace folks, so I can tap into a lot of expertise, not to mention the likes of Adafruit and Sparkfun. So a bespoke example:
The MIDI drum kit. I had a request after the SIA article from someone who had lost the use of their legs and used to be a semi pro drummer. Creating a drum sound is easy using an Arduino as a MIDI controller and a Sparkfun Instrument Shield is straightforward. But how to trigger? First thought, try the type of accelerometer you find in your smart phone attached in a head band, but a drummer moves the body as well as the head, so other sensors and tons of software to pick out the relevant movement are needed so forget that. Ultrasonic range finders, similar issues, forget that. I also had a chat with my dentists dental technician. He showed me how to sandwich pressure sensors in sheets of dental plastic. Unfortunately teeth abrade that and leak saliva into the sensor and short it out, so forget that. Then serendipity kicks in. Whilst checking out some camera tech I spotted a tooth switch.
I used to sky dive back in the 70s and aerial photography was done by triggering cameras in flight. The modern equivalent was tooth switch, which give an “On” signal when bitten by your teeth. Job done. So bespoke devices happen every now and then. I do not charge but the time to me is valuable.
When, and why did the idea first come to you?
It starts out in the 80s when I’m playing flute in a barn dance (Ceilidh) band. The band leader was head teacher of a special needs school. We did a couple of barn dances a year for their students. It was very clear they perceived and enjoyed folk rhythms.
Move the clock forward to 2005. I changed career to work in day services mental health . My work focussed on “getting well be doing normal stuff”. A cupboard full of instruments came to light. So I started running music sessions. A friend of mine had simplified guitar music for children with Down’s Syndrome to play a guitar. So I learnt a chord a week (I play flute) and used this music in my group sessions. The basic concept was to a service user was that once you can play an ”A” chord” then you are a guitar player. This enabled people with depression to regain confidence in themselves. So fast forward to 2012. Paralympics. Just about to “retire”. I had the insight to come up with the concept of a “musical prosthesis”. 18 months later, I had various prototypes up and running. Basically combining two careers and a hobby.
Tell us about the reception your work has received, and the types of people who come to you?
At a conference at the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in Putney last year, the main speaker, Dr Wendy Magee said the assistive music community needed more technologist such as me. Pretty much on the whole very positive. But, I’ve had a range of apologies from folks who have lost budgets and staff, and can’t find staff time to try out experimental inventions.
We love the look of the NoteDuino, talk to us about the idea, and development of that instrument, specifically.
I’ve got into building what I call “concept challengers”. The NoteDuino was the first one. IT’s meant to demonstrate the use of opensource tech. It looks like what it does. Push a button, it triggers a sound. You can also plug in an actuators, to trigger a sound. As a course designer I created a step change in the 80s by adding pictures (visuals) to company training material. So I thought making a musical device look like what it does was obvious.
Is there a project you are most proud of and why?
Sound Blanket. It got broken. The parents asked if I could rebuild it. So I did.
What is the mission statement for the future of Accessible Music?
Sorry, I gave up on mission statements after leaving the corporate environment. But in reality, making music truly accessible for fun or therapy.
For more on Phillip’s work, visit: http://www.accessiblemusic.org.uk/