Innovations from our Accessible Instruments Challenge


Our innovation team was tasked by Arts Council England to deliver a programme that would help uncover practical solutions that make it easier for disabled people to make music, and solve specific challenges when it comes to the supply of adaptive instruments to schools.

We partnered with Creative United, the OHMI Trust, Hobs 3D and University College London to design and deliver the Accessible Instruments Challenge: a virtual-first programme that ran over three months. It was important that each team included people with different perspectives and had a good mix of disabled and non-disabled musicians, instrument makers, designers, manufacturers, tech experts, music teachers and academics.

We assigned each dream team a specific challenge and helped them collaborate remotely during lockdown. Keep reading for a summary of the progress they made, and get in touch with us if you’d like to help the teams take their projects further – or if you’d like to bring a new inclusive innovation challenge to us.

Multisensory production

The team looked at adapting mainstream music production software so that visually impaired musicians face no limitations when it comes to producing great music. They also looked at making music equipment manufacturers and retailers more aware about the importance of making products accessible first from the very first development stages.

Through weekly workshops, they created three assets to raise awareness: a website for manufacturers and musicians full of resources, a social media campaign aimed at stimulating a dialogue and a video.

Commenting on the challenge, Jason Dasent, a visually impaired music producer, said:

“I think we’ve really shown that when a multidisciplinary team representative of the stakeholders works together, it produces resources that are generally useful for everyone. And for me, that’s the essence of accessibility. It’s simply that when everybody takes part, everyone benefits.”

The team was made up of three people with visual impairments and three sighted people. But Jason said those classifications became less important as the project went on. “It was no longer blind people and sighted people; we all worked together on every aspect of the task. I worked with the videographer on the video, I designed the storyboard myself. So here so I was dealing with a videographer and it wasn’t like ‘here’s a blind person talking to me’ – it was just Jason talking to Rob.”

Jason also pointed out that it’s in the interest of manufacturers and retailers to make instruments more accessible because it will result in more sales and a larger customer base. And he hopes they start to invest in this space soon. “It should be the norm – I don’t want to come back in two years and say ‘we need to make music more accessible’,” he said.

Digital bagpipe chanter

As part of his PhD research project, musician Duncan Menzies had already developed an electronic bagpipe chanter that uses touch-free tone hole sensors and sampled acoustic recordings to provide a realistic and responsive playing experience. He originally created it to help people easily learn how to play the bagpipes. He then adapted the instrument to enable people with upper limb disabilities to learn how to play the bagpipes.

The team reviewed Duncan’s original designs and reconfigured the software to improve the user interface to make it even easier for a broader range of people to pick up. They also explored ways of making the software web accessible so people can use it with their phones or desktop computers.

Courtney Reed, a PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London, taught herself how to play Scotland the Brave using the software, which fellow team member Sean Tracey, a developer advocate at IBM, says is “potentially the future” when it comes to the way people learn to play instruments.

Two young people in St Andrews are already using the instrument and Duncan says he and his team “are slowly working our way towards having the world’s first one-handed pipe band”.

Trombone stand

The team started by looking at an existing, award-winning harness created by Thomas Tschirren – an engineer who also plays the trombone – that allows top players with one arm to play the instrument. With Thomas himself acting as the team leader, they worked on finding a way to mass produce something that was highly bespoke – and make it more affordable.

They explored the possibility of creating a kit that the public could use with some relatively low-tech help. “Thomas’ solution was achieved with 20th century technology and it needs to be brought into the 21st century to achieve a much more efficient, lightweight, accessible, cheaper solution but with the same concept behind it,” said Chris Fower, director of creativity and innovation at the Warwick Music Group.

They experimented with materials and explored lining the shoulder harness with a version that could be inflated with a resin, which sets in the shape of the user. The next step would be to explore manufacturing options in China. The pandemic has made this more challenging, but Chris says that “the ground is laid”.

One-handed clarinet

Instrument maker Peter Worrell has already created a one-handed clarinet that enables musicians with upper limb disabilities to play. The problem is, it’s expensive to manufacture. The team explored ways of reducing the production costs and lead time.

Sharon Jones, an engineer, at Barclays Eagle Labs, said the team looked at the ligature (an important component piece) to see if was possible to simplify something that was “very fiddly”. By experimenting with a sample of a 3D printed ligature, they “found something that is much easier for one-handed players to use,” Sharon said.

They also looked at alternative manufacturing processes, concluding that while 3D printing could be a solution for printing the metal keys, the technology’s not quite there yet. They believe that 5-axis milling presents a more suitable solution in the near term.

Sharon also spoke about the potential market for a more affordable one-handed clarinet. She estimates that there are four thousand people with a disability that affects the use of their hands, but there are only six accessible clarinets in the world.

Supply chains for schools

Adaptive instruments are often more expensive and disabled children aren’t always able to access them through their schools – which means they get left out of ensemble performances and don’t get a chance to learn the instrument of their choice. The team explored ways of addressing blockages in the supply of these instruments to schools.

They realised that one of the biggest barriers is a lack of awareness when it comes to the solutions that are already available, and the absence of a process for schools to follow if a child needs an adaptive instrument.

The team’s proposed solution is a knowledge base that’s run by experts and comes with a centralised system for buying instruments. Both parents and and schools would be able to access the portal and get support with selecting and ordering.

Virtual band

Our virtual band team looked at how immersive technology could make it easier for people with disabilities to play traditional instruments that haven’t been adapted.

Team member Sarah Dunn‘s son has challenges when it comes to his fine motor skills, but Sarah says it’s important for children like him to be able to access the same instruments as everyone else. “Like any young person or adult my son wants to play an instrument that already exists and doesn’t necessarily want to do something different from his peers,” she told us.

The team turned their attention to creating an accessible ukulele. Using tracking technology and a keyboard, they found a way to change the cords. The interface also comes with visual cues to help musicians manage how they play the instrument. The solution was tested in a classroom, and disabled children were able to play the ukulele using the interface alongside their peers.

Violin bow holder

Nate Macabuag is the co-founder of Mitt Wearables: a company that’s designed an upper limb prosthesis that’s more comfortable and easy to wear. He’s also the founder of Koalaa, which is on a mission to make give everyone on the planet access to affordable and comfortable prostheses.

He worked with the team to develop a prosthesis that enables anyone with an upper limb disability to pick up and play a violin. Using 3D printed parts enabled the team to test and iterate the prosthesis, which is available via Koalaa’s website now to try. It’s an early-stage product, so the team welcomes feedback. Koalaa is also looking for sponsorship that would allow them to continue developing and improving it.

One-handed recorder

Peter Worrell has already created a high-quality one-handed recorder. The team wanted to explore ways of making it more affordable for a non-professional audience and to reduce the manufacturing lead time.

With input from Peter Worrell, they looked to 3D printing as a potential manufacturing solution. They played around with different parts and tested a prototype on teams members who had upper limb disabilities.

Commenting on what needs to be done to get the prototype to people who would benefit from them, Rachel Wolffsohn, general manager at the OHMI Trust, said that as well as simply raising awareness about the fact that they exist, they need to find a platform that would connect buyers with the recorder and set up a manufacturing process to fulfil those orders. She also said that the prototype the team developed could be suitable for a broader market. “One-handed recorded playing is quite a thing in contemporary music as well, so these instruments actually give you the full range of the recorder. So there is a broader market, but obviously our target in this instance is those who can’t play any other kind of recorder.”