New computer lets handicapped make beautiful music


February 09, 1992|By Leslie Cauley

Tapping out a rhythm on a desktop is a simple task for most of us. It is quite another thing for those afflicted with disabilities so profound as to make the simple motion of lifting a finger a cause for celebration.

Technology can't restore motor skills or give back what Mother Nature had not intended. But a computer programmer in Boston has shown that it can bring the gift of music into the lives of those who can never hope to strum a guitar, wail on a saxophone or lead a marching band.

Jonathan Adams, a Boston-area computer programmer and music teacher, has written a software program that allows even the most disabled user to create music, from jazz to rock to Christmas tunes.

The software, dubbed Switch Ensemble, can provide background tempos and conjure up an orchestra of instruments, including the flute, electric piano, organ, marimba and drums.

Users interact with Switch Ensemble by activating controlling devices or switches, including touch-screens, and head and foot levers. Users can play solo or in groups.

The idea behind Switch Ensemble is simple, said Mr. Adams: to allow students with varying physical and cognitive abilities to create music without help -- except from the computer.

"It allows the kids to do something on their own," he said.

One need look no further than the faces of children at the #F Massachusetts Hospital School in Canton, Mass., a state school for children with disabilities, to gauge the success of Mr. Adams' software.

A recent videotape showed a youth who has had cerebral palsy since birth playing maestro for a new-age jazz tune. He accomplished that feat by dragging his bent hands across a lap-sized touch-screen controller perched on his wheelchair. Musical sounds emerged the instant he touched the controller.

The youth, who cannot speak, walk, or feed or clothe himself, responded to his musical creation the way any maestro would: He smiled.

Mr. Adams' technology project was one of several computer projects with educational applications that made it to the finals in the Johns Hopkins University's 1991 National Technology Search.

Mr. Adams' project placed second overall, behind a flexible computer for the disabled developed by a California inventor.

The Switch Ensemble program is available for $175 from Mr. Adams, but after last week's national debut, bigger distribution plans may be in the works.

Mr. Adams said some large computer companies have expressed interest in distributing the software nationally but that wants to tinker with it before taking that step. He said he wants to write a less expensive program -- costing less than $50 -- that could be used in the home.

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