Making music more accessible to the wider community – Monash Lens


Australians with disabilities face significant barriers to careers in music.

Almost 20% of Australians – that’s 4.5 million people – identify as living with a disability, with the overwhelming majority saying the main form is physical.

But in the world of music, only 7% of the 15,400 practicing musicians in Australia live with a disability.

This unusually low figure is at odds with the fact that Australians with disabilities are more than twice as likely to donate money to the arts and are more likely to recognize the positive impacts of the arts – almost 70% say the arts have a “great” or “very great” impact on their sense of well-being and happiness.

In addition, 19% of disabled Australians – almost a million people – already play a musical instrument, compared to only 15% of other Australians.

Instruments can be an obstacle

Why are Australian musicians with disabilities so underrepresented in the music industry as practicing musicians?

One of the biggest hurdles is the instruments themselves, with nearly every musician with a physical disability settling for a traditional acoustic instrument that may not be ideal for their creative practice.

Acoustic instruments maintain an inherent and unbreakable link between movement and sound, and were primarily designed to facilitate virtuoso performances by musicians without physical disabilities.

Traditional acoustic instruments may not be ideal for the creative practice of people with disabilities.

Today, a new wave of “gesture-based” digital instruments that use motion sensors gives us the opportunity to reimagine and reinvent the connection between human movement and sound in ways that could not be conceived in the past. design of traditional acoustic instruments.

The slightest physical movement can be converted into loud, thundering drums, virtual strings can be pulled out of nowhere, and the art forms of dance and music can become one.

Disability itself, according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, “results from the interaction between persons with disabilities and the attitudinal and environmental barriers that impede their full and effective participation in society”.

Enter the AirSticks

At Monash University, a team of musicians, engineers, and disability advocates at the university’s SensiLab developed AirSticks 2.0.

As its name suggests, the instrument is in its second iteration. The original AirSticks, which I co-invented with computer programmer Mark Havryliv in 2013, relied on off-the-shelf virtual reality (VR) controllers. The controllers were less than ideal for musical performances, as they were essentially repurposed plastic game controllers wired to a hub.

They provided us with motion data that allowed triggering and manipulation of sound via invisible “trigger planes” or pressing buttons on controllers.

This led to a highly expressive gestural instrument that extended the metaphor of playing an electronic drum kit with trigger pads much further, giving the performer full control over every nuance of the sound; the timing, length, and character of the sound could be changed depending on how and where the keystrokes were made.

The original AirSticks have been used in hundreds of performances including Vivid Sydney Festival, TedXSydney and Triple J’s Like a version. However, the instrument remained relatively inaccessible to the wider community, with the controllers themselves being commercially discontinued and the trigger system being difficult to master.

A top-to-bottom rebuild

The AirSticks 2.0 gave SensiLab researchers Sam Trolland, Elliott Wilson, Professor Jon McCormack, Ciaran Frame and myself the opportunity to redesign and build the instrument from the ground up, creating hardware that would allow the instrument to be completely wireless and attachable to drumsticks, forearms or gloves.

Other considerations included low latency (so that the overall “delay” between movement and sound generation was kept to an imperceptible minimum), plug-and-play functionality (to allow data to be immediately accessible for integration into existing digital instruments) and to be fully configurable (giving control over the calibration of received data for customization).

But, if an instrument is only played in a laboratory and no one is there to hear it, does it really exist?

Melbourne is buzzing with grassroots music movements, with several inclusive music groups giving voice to artists with disabilities. By forging relationships with Jolt Arts, Safe in Sound, BoilOver and yourDNA, we have been able to “ecologically validate” our research in public performances and workshops, with artists with disabilities guiding the creative process which, in turn, informs technology .

Using dance to communicate ideas

One such artist, dancer and poet Dr. Melinda Smith, has been promoting the health and well-being outcomes of dance for people with disabilities for 30 years.

”I use dance and movement to communicate ideas and experiences that cannot be conveyed by words alone, so combining movement with sound and text, and having SensiLab’s technology to do so with as many expression and transparency, is a match made in heaven.”

Dr. Smith, who lives with cerebral palsy, brings his own creative practice to the development of AirSticks 2.0.

By focusing on a performance outing with the instrument, and interviewing and “hanging out” and getting to know each other’s values ​​and ideas for what our next piece might look and sound like, we are not not driven by technology, but by our creativity and our passion to move and inspire an audience.

The low latency nature of the instrument allows Dr. Smith to communicate with immediacy and expressiveness. The plug-and-play capability allows him to quickly explore different instruments, noting which ones cause finer tuning, and the instrument’s configurability allows him to change how his movements relate to the sound being played.

A smiling Dr Melinda Smith looking through a hole in her overturned wheelchair - black and white image
Foster Creativity: Using AirSticks allows Dr. Melinda Smith to communicate with immediacy and expressiveness.

In collaboration with music researcher Dr Anthea Skinner and disability advocate Libby Price, and with support from the Australian Arts Council’s Arts and Disability Mentoring Initiative, a new work has been added to the repertoire of Dr. Smith.

But also, the knowledge acquired during the creation of the piece carries over to the overall design of the instrument.

Finally, a comeback

After a long enforced hiatus from live performances due to COVID-19, the AirSticks project is now in full swing through several new collaborations with musicians and dancers living with and without disabilities, each at different stages of their creative practice.

In the latest SensiLab collaboration in development, audiences are invited to join professional musicians and dancers on stage with AirSticks, blurring the line between listening and performing, and emphasizing that everyone has the right to participate in music creation.

by Melinda Smith The rhythm of my body shapesplus other AirSticks works composed by Ciaran Frame, Sam Trolland, Lucija Ivsic and Dr Alon Ilsar, premiering at the Melbourne Design Week event, Airsticks 2.0, at the Jolted Theatre, Northcote, from March 25-27. See here for more information.


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