Access and options in bespoke music technology workshops

This is a tangent from my latest post about instrument development on the Drake Music blog.  All opinions my own.

The latest switch box project in progress with young musicians at Belvue School.
The latest switch box project in progress with young musicians at Belvue School.

As I sat down to write about the co-development process of a new switch box and how this relates to music workshops, I spotted Matt Griffiths’ recent call to action on the Drake Music blog.

Here he highlights issues with unreliable and fiddly technology that takes a while to get started, particularly in workshop settings. I should add that I don’t know about the particular situation to which he’s referring, so this little piece is by no means a direct response.  But he’s absolutely right – this is something that needs to be addressed. As a workshop leader, I’ve used the phrase “of course, this works perfectly when nobody’s looking” more times than I’d care to mention.  And it’s a shame when what we might regard as innovative approaches can actually reinforce barriers, whether concrete or attitudinal, when they don’t work on demand.  But is unreliability a perennial problem with (music) technology, or does it relate more the way that we approach it?

I’ll speak in particular here about bespoke music technology: an increasingly common take on music tech, which in my opinion, holds the approaches that can create the most options in a workshop or classroom, and hopefully provide the means for longer term musicianship. The Kellycaster, a guitar designed by professional musician John Kelly, and which we prototyped together in a short period of time through a hackathon event, is a great example of this.

Resources for bespoke music technology largely consists of fairly new items that deal with sensors, such as the Arduino boards (and their popular derivatives: the Touch Board and MaKey MaKey), Raspberry Pi and similar embedded computers, Bela Platform (the low latency device at the heart of last year’s Planted Symphony outdoor installation), and the increasingly popular MicroBit (check out Helen Leigh’s work with children in community settings for examples). These devices can all run on batteries, and might be embedded into anything from 3D-printed or laser-cut structures, cardboard boxes, or sewn into wearable materials. For many people, the most exciting aspect of these solutions is a move away from a connection to a computer; making affordable instruments, rather than controllers.  But they don’t necessarily have to replace existing solutions; we could also consider customising iPad apps like ThumbJam with photos and samples, adding stickers and velcro to make more of a bridge with the physical world, or using contact microphones to amplify everyday objects.

Should we expect specialist music technology like this to function straight away, as if picking up a guitar or sitting down at a drum kit? Or do we need to think about the kind of space and expectations we’re setting up in that process?  Is it reasonable to ask participants of a workshop or music class to join us in this space, if they are to own the technology? How can we make ourselves comfortable as musicians and leaders in this situation, if from experience we can expect things to go wrong on a regular basis?

There’s a huge issue with defining accessibility that needs to be brought in here.  Access is not just about simplifying a process, or including token switches or distance sensors so that more people in the room can make a sound.   Refining instruments and/or technology for mass use often means removing individual control to the point of frustration, as anyone who has used an iPad has probably learned first-hand. To make something that works best for everyone (including the workshop leader and/or teacher juggling ten things at once), we run the risk of taking the options away that are at the heart of access.

Everyone experiences and plays music differently, and whether we’re working in a school with a SEN/D label, or trying to create an inclusive music environment in a non-specialist environment, technology outside the traditional instrumental model has the most potential to accommodate different approaches.  For many people, the appeal of music technology lives in the variety of options it offers – but in a tablet or computer-centric world, this often just means tripping over menus instead of instruments and cables.  The physical interface, moving beyond the now ubiquitous touch screen, is so often the key.

A Javanese rebab built out of a cardboard box and various cables.
A version of a Javanese rebab, built with cardboard and sensors as part of the Drake Music/British Council #DMLabChallenge event.

If we always decide these options in advance – without engaging in dialog with the people involved – we just end up with another potentially closed instrument.  Making instruments at the start of the workshop can seem like a wild tangent, perhaps like an unmusical activity, or a novelty. But it can also demystify and clarify certain processes. If we skip this step and have to explore other options verbally, in my opinion it’s easy to lose the momentum otherwise gathered through empowerment to explore, to discover and own the constraints at the start of the process.

Exploring conductive objects as instruments at a recent workshop at Milieux Institute, Montreal. Items participants brought in included fruit, jewellery, bottled water, and a tampon.
Exploring conductive objects as instruments at a recent workshop at the Participatory Media Research Cluster, Milieux Institute, Montreal. Items the participants brought in to try included fruit, jewellery, bottled water, and a tampon.

For example, is a Touch Board the same as a drum kit? No – it’s far more open than that – with a few bits of tinfoil and crocodile clips, just for starters, we can make a huge variety of playable shapes, and play on what might be more familiar territory for many people in the form of art materials and stick-backed plastic.  For the sake of reliability, we could certainly demonstrate a sleek “drum kit” version that works straight away.  In many cases, albeit subtly, this will normalise a certain type of interaction.  Sure – sometimes we just need to provide model (and it’s true, often we need to choose our battles and know when to prioritise instant gratification and reliability).  But more often than not, it’s likely that everything will start to look like that initial drum kit, perhaps bringing the same access barriers to the party that we’d set out to avoid. On some days, we may end up wishing we’d just brought a load of djembe. I know I have from time to time.

Everyone will have a different approach – writing this now, I can think of a few colleagues that could make the above situation work well. My preferred method for presenting this kind of technology in an introductory workshop situation is to keep everything as open as possible, but to prepare the materials strategically and ask participants to set these devices up creatively.  To have a routine and externalise it, let everyone else in on that process. More often than not, we’ll work the instructions to plug everything in and calibrate into a song (with dance moves, if the mood is right). Then if something goes wrong, it’s part of the process, an opportunity to learn straight away, and a good excuse to build on our “setting up song” rather than a distraction or headache.  As a result, I’ve found that people involved in these kinds of workshops really own these situations from the start, and often come up with instruments I never would have dreamed of by myself. In some cases this means creating instruments that address barriers encountered by individuals, based on their lived experience.  And of course, sometimes, it all falls apart too, like anything else worthwhile!

Hopefully, the kind of development I describe in the Drake Music post is really a longer form version of this workshop approach, with the benefit of play and iterative feedback…

Easier said than done? Quite possibly..