Adaptive Use Musical Instruments and why we all should support their development

Posted: August 4, 2011 in On Beauty, On Compassion
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Have you ever had a friend with ALS or with a spinal injury, who has lost very close to all of their mobility? Have you ever seen a child who was born deformed, with limited mobility? I’ve seen both. We probably all have. One thing you know, if you have spent time with folks like this, is that what happens inside their mind is typically thousands of times more advanced than what their body can express. In other words, they may not have mobility but they probably do have intellectual capacity, a wish to express themselves, and creativity. The problem is to figure out how to help them express what’s inside, despite their limited muscle function.

Among the most well-known examples of a guy with almost no mobility, but with an intellectual capacity that far exceeds most normal mortals, is Stephen Hawking. We’ve all seen Dr. Hawking, in his wheelchair, with his computer, discussing black holes and astrophysics. And… we are amazed.

But it is not only scientists who deserve the ability to express their innermost thoughts. Everyone should have that ability – if they want it. So, let’s take an example from the visual arts. Chuck Close is an amazing painter. You’ve probably seen his self-portraits or his famous portrait of Phil Glass. Well, Chuck has very limited mobility and often even paints with a brush in his mouth. He too is an example of how one overcomes mobility issues.

These are amazing people who are astonishingly inspiring. Both of them show that mobility need not be an impediment to creative intellectual functioning.

But, what happens if you have never had the chance to learn a skill or a discipline before you lose your mobility. What if you are born with limitations? How can you learn to express yourself? There are many people working on many ways of enabling these folks to function. Among the coolest, and most exciting, possibilities comes from the world of music. How? Enter the world of “adaptive use”.

Adaptive Use Musical Instruments are pieces of computer software that allow students with limited – even minimal – voluntary mobility to create sequences of electronic sounds using little or almost no motion. Essentially, relatively simple camera tracking technology is used to profoundly enhance the creative lives of people who otherwise would be unable to create.  In the hands of a great composer and improviser like Pauline Oliveros, these young people can perform both solo and in ensembles. Students with mobility so limited that they can do nothing more than turn their heads, who are wheelchair-bound, and who even have no speaking ability can generate pattern and rhythm in such a way that they are able to engage in amazing feats of improvisation. These young people can enjoy the act of creation in a way that their limited mobility does not interfere with their mind’s creative processes. They are free to create and to interact with others! That is nothing short of glorious. It is a profound gift – without question.

Now, I mentioned Pauline Oliveros earlier. You may well not know who she is unless you have a background in contemporary art music.  I doubt that Pauline actually remembers me other than via our connection on Facebook. That’s okay, because teachers often meet far more students than students meet teachers. I don’t feel any worse about that than I do about admiring Bill Viola in a world where Bill Viola doesn’t even remember me sitting in his classes. It’s just a fact of life. But, I remember the very day I met Pauline. I was a student at CalArt and she was a guest composer. Many of us helped to prepare the “main gallery” for her performance of “El Relecario de los Animals” and I thought she was amazing. Well, years later, Pauline started an organization called the “Deep Listening Institute” where she continues to work on improvisation and in various meditative forms of listening skills and interaction. It’s been 30 years now and I still think she’s amazing. And, it is the “Deep Listening Institute” that is the mastermind behind Adaptive Use Musical Instruments. I like Pauline and I love the project. So, I want you all to know about it and to consider supporting it.

How, exactly, can you support this project? First, of course,  they will happily take your money. Second, though, is that PepsiCo is offering a $50,000 grant and you can help this project to get that money by voting for it here:

http://www.refresheverything.com/music-across-abilities-

The deal is this: If you have ever known the frustration that comes from the inability to communicate and you have seen the pure, utter, joy that comes from overcoming that limitation, you know what a blessing can come from a project like this; especially one focused on providing creative experiences for children. It’s simply a beautiful thing. All I’m asking is that you consider helping its beauty continue to grow!

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Comments
  1. Dear Steve,

    I may not remember you from my CalArts visit when you helped prepare for El Relicario de los Animales but I do very much appreciate your remembrance. Thank you so much for your blog about AUMI. This is the kind of support that we need to push on with this project.

    It has been a joy to me to see children with limited mobility blossom with the empowerment of improvisation. We want to keep this project under development with feedback from the community. The software interface is available for free with registration and a promise to send feedback at http://www.deeplistening.org/adaptiveuse

    Our hope is that the research effort will be distributed with many participants making the application better and helping to empower more children.

    Thank you again for your words of support.

    with all best wishes,

    PO

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