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Disabled Musicians Making Their Own Instruments

July 11, 2019

As a music journalist, it is rare to hear a sound that is totally unrecognisable – but at a gig hosted by the Augmented Instruments Laboratory (AIL) at the Iklectik near London’s South Bank, this is what happens. The event is showcasing new musical instruments designed by researchers at Queen Mary University of London. On stage is Robyn Steward who, after a rousing introduction, gives a performance on her own augmented instrument: a trumpet wired through a series of pedals, producing distorted and delayed sounds I’ve never heard before. But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: Steward’s trumpet is a new invention, created out of necessity in a market where barely any of the instruments available are suited to her abilities. Enabled by developments in technology, Steward is one of a small but growing new generation of women breaking down barriers of gender and ability in music.

Steward has 10 disabilities, including autism and cerebral palsy. She plays tonight in the headline slot, in good company. Also performing is Lia Mice, PhD student and composer of avant-garde electroid pop music, tonight playing the double-headed harp guitar – like a washboard with two guitar heads at one end and 12 strings stretched across it. It follows other Mice creations such as the ChandeLIA (a “hacked chandelier”), the Reeltime (a four-track tape looper with a custom interface), and a one-handed violin, which is operated using a throat microphone to alter the pitch of a bowed string.

Mice was inspired to make the one-handed violin out of frustration with music lessons in schools, where whole classes are taught to play the same instrument (most commonly the violin), often excluding children with disabilities. Instruments designed with disabled musicians in mind are scarce, while those that are available are often prohibitively expensive. However, recent technological advances are enabling more and more designers to innovate in accessible music tech, at lower costs.

One key development is Bela, an embedded computing platform created by the AIL. No bigger than a matchbox, Bela is an audio processor that turns code into sound. It’s been used in the one-handed violin, the Sound Experiment Station and the AIL’s cardboard lightsabers. Both its software and hardware are open-source, meaning anyone can see how it’s made to incorporate it into their own instrument designs. This approach has enabled many at the AIL to teach themselves how to design instruments, combining collaboration between members with ad-hoc design solutions (Mice bought the one-handed violin’s throat mic from a website aimed at people with Parkinson’s).

When did music become important to Mice? “Just always,” she says simply. She’s partially sighted – almost entirely blind in one eye – and doctors mistakenly forced her to wear an eyepatch over her good eye until she was 10. She only escaped the treatment after “cheating” an eye test, hurriedly making up a song to help her memorise the letters on the chart, then reciting them once her eye was covered up. “So yeah, music saved my life,” she says, bashfully.

AIL researcher Laurel Pardue believes the lack of visible disabled musicians in contemporary music is linked to the persistent lack of women in both the music and tech industries. The AIL is currently balanced evenly between male and female researchers, but that is unusual. A study conducted last year showed only 16% of people working in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) are female. In music tech that figure falls to 5%. Even at student level, 90% of music tech students are male, while female music tech students are the most likely to drop out. “Why is it that women get turned off even just starting?” Pardue asks.

“They don’t have the same physical restrictions, but it’s the same question,” she continues. “How do you get more women visibility at festivals, for instance, when everyone is still booking more men?” Mice also notes the importance of recognising people like herself in music: “I definitely have my role models, whether they’re women or just inspiring people.” The BBC recently revealed that 77% of acts booked in the UK in 2018 were male. Mice herself has addressed this, telling me she has often phoned event organisers to ask why only men were booked on a particular lineup. “You’re putting on a show, perpetuating this image of who a professional is in this domain,” she says. “So you’re contributing to the problem by running that sort of show.”

Pardue also performed at the Iklectik the other night, playing her own augmented violin alongside live-coder Jack Armitage (better known as Lil Data). About a decade ago, she was working at software company Pro Tools: “I think we had 150 engineers,” she says. “And it wasn’t until we walked into an all-engineers meeting that I was like: ‘Oh … me and the intern are the only women in here.’” Mice adds that even after years working as an artist “people just don’t take you seriously. It’s as if you’ve just discovered music and are like: ‘Oh, I might give it a go and then next week I’ll learn how to sew’. You’ll get offstage and people will be like: ‘Hey, you should probably exchange this pedal for that pedal’. Don’t you think I might have had that thought already?’” she sighs. “I think that could be the answer for why people drop out.”

At the Sonic Arts Research Centre, Queen’s University Belfast, Franziska Schroeder and Matilde Meireles have worked on inclusive instrument design as part of the research group Performance Without Barriers. I ask them if there’s a connection between the lack of women in music tech and accessibility in instrument design: Schroeder emphasises the need for “voices around the table”, people of all ethnicities, ages and, crucially, abilities being involved in design processes.

She and Meireles were approached by Zach Kinstner to test the EXA: The Infinite Instrument, which is operated through VR, with a pair of controllers attached to the musician’s hands, functioning like drumsticks, creating sounds when hit against coloured shapes in the VR world. “We tried it out, and while a fantastic instrument for able-bodied performers, it didn’t work for disabled musicians,” says Schroeder. Mary Louise McCord, a musician with cerebral palsy working with accessible music charity Drake Music Project in Northern Ireland, had difficulty playing the EXA due to the high motor control required to operate it. On Schroeder and Meireles’s advice, bespoke adjustments were made to the VR design, making the musical shapes easier to interact with. “It became very clear,” Schroeder adds, “that we need to put inclusion at the start of the design process, rather than it being an afterthought of: ‘How can we now change all this?’”

Liz Jackson, founder of disability self-advocacy organisation The Disabled List, has critiqued what’s known as “design thinking”, an approach to creating more accessible products developed in the 1960s – predominantly by able-bodied white men. It relies on empathy, interviewing and observing disabled people and then tailoring an approach accordingly. But, Jackson argues, this often feels “less like empathy and a little bit more like designers are gleaning our ideas and our life hacks so that they can sell them back to us as inspirational do-good without ever giving us credit.”

Meireles concurs. “If there’s an opportunity to engage with disabled people and give them a voice, that’s what collaboration should be about: sharing experiences and learning,” she says. “The more people we get to know, the more we can expand these projects.”

I get the sense that collaboration and diversity – at every stage of the design process – are more important than simply promoting the surface-level visibility of women and disabled musicians in music tech. That said, anyone looking for role models could do a lot worse than Steward or Mice. A week after the Iklectik show, I go to see Mice at a warehouse party. This time she plays tracks from her new album on an Octatrack sampler, another instrument she commands masterfully. The tight crowd is transfixed and, as she tells me afterwards, no one messed with her setup. There’s a long way to go, but she is one of a few reasons for optimism.

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