Carien Meijer on Accessible Music Technology

White disabled man, sits in front of a keyboard, with a specially designed guitar adapted for his shortened arms
John Kelly at DMLab. Credit: Drake Music

Carien Meijer, Chief Executive of Drake Music talks to Disability Arts International about her organisation’s exciting and innovative work.

What is Drake Music doing to support musicians working with Accessible Music Technology (AMT)?

Everything we do uses technology to break down barriers to music-making, from introducing young musicians to iPad music apps in school workshops to working with professional musicians such as Kris Halpin to investigate and play the MiMu Gloves and John Kelly who plays the Kellycaster, a new bespoke instrument.

The Kellycaster was John’s concept and has been designed and built in collaboration with Gawain Hewitt, who leads our DMLab, and musician/technologist Matthew Charles.  John wanted to perform live and play the guitar but has restricted movement in one of his hands, so our DMLab team collaborated with him to develop this new instrument, building the first prototype and now we continue to develop and test if for live performance.  The end result is an instrument which combines a real electric guitar body with a software interface. John plays the guitar by strumming real guitar strings, while using an iPad app to control chords and notes.
John Kelly and Gawain Hewitt demonstrating the Kellycaster. Image: Emile Holba

Alongside working with individual musicians in this bespoke way, we offer regular open sessions in London for emerging and more established musicians to get together, try out new tech and jam. In January 17 we will be launching a similar initiative in Manchester.

We have also hosted projects in Manchester and Bristol offering disabled musicians the opportunity to learn and hone their electronic music-making skills in an accessible setting.

We also want to ensure that our team is diverse and multi-skilled and have designed a range of training initiatives for disabled musicians interested in joining Drake Music as Associate Musicians/ Trainers to – for example – deliver workshops in education settings or train teachers and music practitioners interested in using tech to music accessible.

We share all our work online and use open source technology wherever possible, to make sure that other musicians and makers can benefit from our learning and experiments.

Tell us about the Innovation Labs

DMLab aka DM Innovation Lab is our Research & Development programme.  We experiment with and test new technology, and design, build and adapt instruments.  Disabled musicians are at the vanguard of technological development, doing some really exciting and innovative work. We’re aiming to develop a culture where accessibility is built in as standard and isn’t designed out as the instrument progresses from prototype to finished product.

We hold regular hackmeets, hosted by John Kelly and Gawain Hewitt, at our London offices, and sometimes in partnership with organisations such as the British Council, Southbank Centre, Madlab and Furtherfield.  These meet-ups give makers, coders, hackers and disabled musicians a chance to meet each other and explore possibilities within music tech to open up access to music and create and test new instruments.  We now have very active maker communities in London and Manchester and are planning to host/nurture a community of makers in Bristol in the near future.

Hackathon at the Southbank Centre Image: Emile Holba

What is technology doing for disabled musicians that hasn’t been possible before?   

So much! The rapid pace of technological development is incredibly exciting in so many ways. It is making technology more affordable to a wider group of people which immediately starts to break down barriers.
For example, many households will now own what is proving to be a brilliant piece of accessible music technology – an iPad. There are so many great apps with features which can be customised for individual use to suit different access requirements

Plus as the tech sector grows, a broader range of people are getting involved with making, developing, hacking and inventing, which means more viewpoints and insights being shared and more interesting products coming out as a result.

Look at the musician Imogen Heap – her interest in technology has led to the development of wearable musical technology which is now being played and developed further by disabled musician Kris Halpin. This wearable tech would have been unthinkable 15 years ago, but now the MiMu Gloves mean Kris can play complicated music using hand gestures tailored precisely to his movements. Wonderful.

Kris Halpin demonstrating the MiMu Gloves. Image: Emile Holba

How are musicians using AMT integrating with those playing more traditional instrumentation?

We are seeing attitudes towards technology beginning to change within the sector. There are obviously some parts of the music industry which have embraced new technology since the early days of synthesizers, but outside of popular music change has been slower and sometimes you still get the impression that music using technology isn’t considered to be “real music”.

However, new accessible music technologies can integrate with traditional instruments really well. We run a music group in Bristol where the band play using both new technology like the Alphasphere and old technology like the guitar. It’s also fantastic to see a very experienced and brilliant musician like Clarence Adoo playing live in concert halls and with other classically trained musicians using accessible music technology.  

What are Drake Music’s plans for the future?

We will continue to work with disabled musicians of all ages to support their musical journey.  Whether that’s training disabled music leaders to work with schools, offering an accessible accredited qualification for young students, creating new artistic commission opportunities or developing bespoke instruments and technologies. Some of what we will do isn’t known yet as it will be led by the requirements of disabled musicians and by the possibilities which technological developments offer.

We will of course continue to work in partnership with musicians/artists and organisations nationally and internationally to make sure that as many disabled people as possible can access and progress in music-making using technology.  We want to level the playing field and our vision is a barrier-free world where disabled and non-disabled musicians collaborate and work together as equals.

Are there any other collaborations or possibilities for AMT that you’d like to tell us about?

We are currently offering commissions for disabled musicians in collaboration with the Southbank Centre, London Philharmonic and Upswing, which will all be composed/performed using some form of accessible music technology.  

However, there are still too few opportunities for disabled musicians/artists to showcase and perform their work on the so-called mainstream stage.  I would like to see many more opportunities emerge in the near future!  

There are also a few other organisations in the UK who work with disabled musicians and tech, such as for example Drake Music Scotland, Drake Music Northern Ireland, Heart ‘n Soul, OpenUp  Music and OHMI so worth keeping an eye out for them and their musicians too.

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