5 ingenious instruments changing everything for musicians with disabilities
© Emile Holba/ Drake Music
From Mi.Mu Gloves to The Magic Flute, check out some of the most innovative technology being developed for disabled musicians.
Django Reinhardt created a new style of jazz guitar after damaging two fingers in a fire. Tony Iommi invented heavy metal after losing his fingertips in a factory accident. Percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who lost her hearing in childhood, has taught us how to listen to music with every part of our body – not just our ears. Disabled musicians have often helped push music forward, approaching their instruments in new and exciting ways.
1. Mi.Mu Gloves
Music instrument as wearable tech, these gloves were originally developed at the instigation of Grammy winner Imogen Heap, who wanted a more expressive way to use music technology on stage. She had the idea for a musical device controlled by hand gestures – gloves that would allow artists creative freedom and musical complexity.
In 2015, Heap, who was excited about the opportunities the gloves might offer disabled musicians, put out a call for contributors. Drake Music, an organisation using new technologies to open up access to music, put Mi.Mu in touch with singer-songwriter Kris Halpin, whose cerebral palsy was preventing him from playing guitar and piano.
After testing the full potential of the technology, the gloves have, Halpin finds, allowed him to conjure music from thin air during live performances. Ariana Grande even got her hands on a pair for her 2015 world tour.
An instrument that adapts to the musician, rather than the other way around, OpenUp Music's Clarion can be played independently with any part of the body, even the eyes.
Running on iPad and Windows, it allows the musician to control everything from the sound it makes to the number of notes it can play – and the way in which they're played. It’s been described as the first music technology that actually feels like an instrument.
Now used in many ‘Open’ orchestras, it allows musicians to play an infinite number of instruments.
Inspired by the harmonica, the Jamboxx is a hands-free, breath-powered instrument that can be used by disabled musicians, or anyone who already has their hands full. Kind of a 21st-century update on the one-man band.
It works by registering breath blown in to the mouthpiece. Moving this from side to side changes the note. You can vary the effect with the velocity of breath, and can even bend notes.
4. The Magic Flute
The best-named instrument on this list is an electronic wind instrument that you can play without using your hands.
The Magic Flute is mounted on a tripod and can move up and down with the musician’s head, which controls the notes. A control module with integrated display lets musicians change the scale and choose from 128 different sounds, from flute to screaming guitar.
The Magic Flute has been praised for allowing the "flautist" to play expressively – something not all electronic instruments achieve – and there is now sheet music specifically for it.
5. Komplete Kontrol
This keyboard range from music production hardware and software innovators Native Instruments allows blind and visually impaired musicians to produce and compose in a manner that’s been hailed as more than game-changing.
Touch-sensitive rotary encoders detect the player’s fingers resting on the keyboard buttons, and the auditory feedback function allows them to browse and tweak sounds without having to involve a sighted person. As pianist Kevin Kern has put it, “the creative possibilities can’t be overstated here”.