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Pioneering project helping disabled teenagers make music

Teenagers whose disabilities prevent them playing ordinary instruments have taken part in a pioneering project working with technology experts to design alternative ways to make music.

The pilot scheme involving the Drake Music NI charity and post-graduate students from Queen's University enabled five young people to design their own bespoke control units using the latest computer science.

Drake Music NI's tutor and chief executive Michelle McCormack wants the initiative to be rolled out in special needs schools, day centres and arts venues across Northern Ireland to help unlock musical creativity in many more children and adults with disabilities or learning difficulties.

For the past 25 years, Drake has worked in Northern Ireland assisting people with a range of disabilities who want to play music but do not have the gestural control to play everyday instruments.

They create switch pads and control units to work with the body parts the students do have control over. They have studios in Belfast, Newry and Londonderry and make regular visits to schools and day centres.

The recent design project, in partnership with Queen's Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC), took their work a step further by allowing students to get involved from the outset in a design process to create their own unique musical solution.

"This has given independence for someone who prior to this has had to be a passive music maker," said Dr McCormack.

"They are now active and it's their own sound. It's absolute independence on their own terms."

After initial discussions with students on what would suit them, the Queen's-recruited designers built individual electronic interfaces to play music through digital platforms. The process culminated with an ensemble performance at SARC in Belfast with the students using their tailor-made control units.

The project followed a similar design session involving a small group of adult students.

Dr McCormack said the success of the two initiatives had paved the way for more widespread use of the technology. She is now aiming to raise the necessary funds.

"On a wider level, disability arts and music are important for creating a truly inclusive society and they contribute to the work happening in wider society to counter the discrimination, marginalisation, misunderstandings and stigmatisation faced by disabled people," she said.

"That's why these kinds of events and inclusion in music making are so important."

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