`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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
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

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism