`Magic' soundbeam frees children from their silent prison

Anne Appleyard on a musical breakthrough for the disabled

Mark has severe cerebral palsy. For the whole of his life he has only been able to move his hands and feet a fraction, and to communicate by means of a soundboard on his knee, which gives him simple phrases such as "Hello" and "I would like a drink". But now Mark can play the drums to a standard of which Phil Collins would be proud - and all thanks to an invisible instrument.

The technology Mark is using is a Soundbeam. It is the creation of a British composer, Edward Williams, and has been introduced into workshops for the disabled by a rock musician, David Jackson. Mr Jackson, who was a member of the Seventies band Van Der Graf Generator, will soon begin teaching formal music lessons in the use of the Soundbeam at Mark's school, Meldreth Manor School in Hertfordshire.

The Soundbeam works by the pupils breaking an ultrasonic beam by the often random movements of their hands, feet and even heads. It is a hi- tech development of an instrument invented in the early years of this century by a Russian, Leon Theremin. This created a kind of trembly noise, much used in Hammer horror films and most famously at the beginning of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations". It works on the same principle as the echo-location used by bats and dolphins.

The Soundbeam looks like a microphone on a stand and the children at Meldreth - most of whom are confined to wheelchairs - are positioned in front of it. The sounds they create through movement are translated back into a synthesiser or keyboard, which is pre-programmed with a series of scales. It means that children such as Mark, who before could only shake a tambourine with a teacher's help, can now play the most extraordinary and intricate tunes.

Two Soundbeams, which cost up to pounds 1,000 each, have been bought, and up to eight pupils, who staff believe will benefit most from the technology, will start formal music lessons in September.

In the spring the school is aiming to bring in pupils from nearby mainstream schools so that the disabled children can teach the able-bodied ones how to use the Soundbeam.

Mr Jackson said that the Soundbeam had given the disabled children a sense of achievement for the first time. He said: "The project is all about `that was me!' It's so rare that these children can achieve anything for themselves. People do things for them all the time and most of these children have to use a soundboard to communicate. But with Soundbeam they're controlling what's happening, they're making the movements which make the sound.

"When I first came to the school the children would make a movement and be completely amazed that they'd produced this beautiful sound. Then they'd make the movement again, and found they could make the same sound. This then became a huge learning curve for them, as they began to experiment with the sounds they could make with fast or slow hand gestures, or waving their feet."

The Soundbeams at Meldreth are programmed to reproduce a wide range of sounds, from drums to guitar to pan flutes. Most of the scales have been pre-programmed by Mr Williams but Mr Jackson has composed new sounds for the children. "The children recently gave a concert in the school grounds and I composed a special `Sea Tune'. Whatever movement one of the children made had the background of a harp, which sounded like the sea.

"The best way I can describe the effect is that one of the teachers said to me that Mark has completely changed since he's been working with the Soundbeam. He now has great confidence and he's increased his physical activity.

"When I first met him he was slumped in his chair. Now his hands are constantly moving, and he wants to communicate. I think it has unlocked him."

Until the Soundbeam was introduced, the only instruments the children at Meldreth Manor could play were simple ones such as the triangle and the tambourine. Music co-ordinator Rosemary Wallace said: "Before, we were doing traditional-type music. Because many of the youngsters have so little movement we were playing the triangle, tambourine and instruments like that by holding them with the children. This is a different form of communication. I've seen pupils who were previously very withdrawn suddenly open up when they find they can produce these wonderful sounds on their own." The Soundbeam has many other applications. Mr Jackson has been working with dance projects for able and disabled children, who dance in front of the beam to create sound through their movement. He says the possibilities of such a system are endless, in mainstream as well as disabled schools, especially through the medium of dance. While I was in the music class at Meldreth, one of the most severely disabled pupils, Martin, reached over to me. He wanted to tell me something using his soundboard. With the help of his teacher, he moved his hands to different symbols. "This music makes me happy," he spelt out.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
TVShow's twee, safe facade smashed by ice cream melting scandal
Life and Style
life
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Voices
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
voices
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
Video
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
News
i100
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
scienceBosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

£20000 - £30000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Project C...

EYFS Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Our Primary School in Grimsby ar...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 6 Supply Teacher Position a...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?