Drake Music’s work on the Youth Music funded Exchanging Notes project is mostly based around classroom support and peri-style sessions at Belvue School (a SEN/D specialist school in Ealing).
Last summer I was delighted to be asked to incorporate small a research and development project, drawing on tech ideas from our DMLab hacker/maker community, and creating techniques that could feed into our other activities.
Fresh from working on the first version of the KellyCaster guitar with John Kelly, this was an exciting opportunity to bring some inspiration from our collaborative approach to the school environment.
The result was a musical Lazy Susan – a freestanding instrument with an embedded computer, incorporating sound, haptic feedback, light, and various sensors for interaction.
WATCH [Vine: the Lazy Susan in Action]
What is haptic feedback? Touch feedback to the end user. You know how your phone sometimes vibrates a tiny bit when you tap a button? That’s haptics at work.
Over the course of ten weeks, I worked with pupils from a KS3 class, alongside their teacher, to develop their own accessible instrument.
Starting with a foundation of play, and aiming to keep the young musicians’ ideas and musical identities at the heart of the sessions, we gradually built up an idea of preferences and ways that we could interact.
Most of our music-making developed out of some of the class’s favourite warm-up activities –
- passing a flashing ball around to work on turn-taking
- singing and signing with Makaton
- dancing to the school’s Sound Beam and sounds DJ’d from an iPad
- recording and playing animal sounds with switches to make our own guessing games
We gathered a small collection of instruments out of this process (some bespoke, some borrowed from the music cupboard), refining ideas in a running conversation based more on playing and moving in the moment than on verbal dialogue.
It was vital to create an inclusive atmosphere in the sessions as well as building accessibility into the instrument, recognising that everyone can experience and play music differently.
Some of the young musicians in our group benefitted from a multi-sensory approach, using light and vibrations to see and touch the music, rather than insisting that we listen with only our ears.
Our approach to technology began with resources that the school already had in place, such as iPads, switches, and the SoundBeam.
The school had already bought a Bare Conductive Touch Board with conductive paint, which this gave us a good starting point to work with some custom interfaces, in the form of interactive pictures.
We did this by creating conductive “underlays” that we could disguise or decorate with a different picture each week – conductive paint and foil don’t rely on direct touch, so they still work well when hidden under thin card or laminated paper.
We built light into our sessions through a set of affordable disco lights linked to a computer, so that movement and touch created cues that were turned into colour.
Vibration speakers converted bassier sounds into buzzes and rumbles that could be felt by touching the surfaces.
The idea for approaching turn-taking in our design came through conversations with teachers within the school who said they had dreamed of setting up instruments and technology in ways that could be rotated and passed around; a quick trip to Ikea later, the first prototype was born!
Sounds could be played either by touching the instrument or leaning into it. We also incorporated a mode which required the player to keep their hand on the board while moving, so that they could choose notes with one hand while turning them on and off with another. Although the kind of coordination and reach required meant it wasn’t accessible to everyone, this added a dimension in terms of physical feedback. By making contact with the instrument while waving, it was possible to experience the benefits of the motion sensor while keeping a physical connection with the vibrations.
Since it was essential not to have any wires hanging out while the Lazy Susan was turned around, the project was compressed into a tupperware box, with battery power for the speaker and other components. We decorated the box together with bright colours and animals from our sessions.
We spent the next few weeks learning to play the instrument as one of the options in our group: devising songs, improvising, having musical conversations, and building in that all-important turn-taking moment.
Spinning the board around and passing it to the next person gradually became a familiar gesture to everyone, an essential action in playing the Lazy Susan.
The unconventional shape of the instrument helped establish that there was no right or wrong way to play, as long as the turn-taking element and mutual respect for others were present. The young musicians developed ways of playing to play with little verbal guidance from adults in the room, with focus on musical interactions, modelling, and responding with physical gestures.
Through this process we found many new ways of playing: touching the conductive areas and counting or singing, leading others in call and response, and leaning in to blow onto the sensor. Although in this latter case the blowing didn’t control the sound directly, the gesture made sense to the young musician in a more concrete way, and became a firm favourite!
So what did the group of young musicians think?
In general the instrument went down well, and was a popular request amongst our options during the sessions.
It was interesting to note that some of those in our group who played with the most focus and enthusiasm ended up giving the most critical feedback. One of our most rewarding moments came through getting to the bottom of why one of our most active players consistently said the instrument was “rubbish” during our feedback time, apparently contradicting himself.
Towards the end of the project, having remembered to ask the all important question “why”, we came to an understanding that the instrument “should play pop music”, and as a result had a great time playing together with drum sounds during our final session. In future versions we hope to incorporate samples as well for maximum flexibility.
The design aesthetic and sounds might not ultimately have been to everyone’s taste, but it felt clear from our interactions that everyone in the room felt a sense of ownership of the instrument and our music-making activities.
The routines and sense of communication that had developed felt just as important as any of the new technology. The class teacher noted that many of the young people involved had shown a marked improvement in turn-taking and listening, both in and out of sessions.
It’s been an interesting endeavour – not least striking a balance between trying new ideas in a reliable enough way to keep everyone engaged, and making sure that the young musicians’ opinions were always actively engaged in this process.
With hindsight (and having worked on a few similar projects since), it would have been good to prioritise ways that pupils and teaching staff could operate the technology independently between sessions, with more opportunities for play outside our allocated contact time.
Often the most effective workshops I’ve encountered in this area have been based on technology that can be thrown together in five minutes, with a focus on hands-on making, sculpting, and experimentation that would be equally at home in a messy art class.
Bespoke music technology is rapidly becoming affordable and accessible, with very limited knowledge required to make something exciting.
Sometimes, as in this case, the most rewarding work lies in finding a good point of entry with a focus on interaction, where hopefully the technology starts to feel transparent.
Bonus geek-out section: under the hood
The Lazy Susan was created with affordability in mind; the resources used totalled under £100. Our first prototype wasn’t exactly built to last, but it has served well for a term and is still available for anyone to play in the music classroom, with a more permanent version on its way.
- Cardboard owl or similar animal with holes cut out for the distance sensor (essential)
- A Lazy Susan from your favourite furniture store
- A Bare Conductive Touch Board set to onboard MIDI mode (plus a bit of custom code for the distance sensor, lights, and added bass notes)
- Several NeoPixels connected to pins on the Touch Board to generate coloured lights
- A vibration speaker (using a headphone splitter, audible sounds can be panned to a regular speaker one channel, while vibrations — the same notes duplicated in lower octaves — are panned to the other).
- An ultrasonic rangefinder (the HC-SR04 is a great budget sensor)
- A power bank designed for mobile phones (watch out – some recent models shut down after a while if unused!)
- Tupperware for the housing, with a combination of hot glue and Sugru to hold everything in place.
- A MIDI socket and cable to control an iPad (optional)
- A few weeks of exploration, dialog, and play!