Instrument development in schools: a portable switch box

We’re now in the final term of the Rhapsody in Ealing/Exchanging Notes project at Belvue School, and things are hotting up.  Over the last few weeks, we’ve been working with the theme of ‘music outside the classroom’. Read and hear a bit more here.  We’ve also been thinking a lot about legacy: what will Drake Music leave with the school after we go?

As part of this endeavour, we’ve started bringing in some elements of the short research and development project from the second year.  Over a term’s work, young musicians from Key Stage 3 used processes of play and musical dialog to collaborate on a musical instrument.  The result, a musical Lazy Susan, had a brief spell of success, and even went out on a couple of road trips – but I never felt like it got taken up outside the Exchanging Notes sessions. This definitely felt like one of those situations where a push towards openness and adaptation can compromise the reliability of the instrument (see Matt Griffiths’ guest blog post from earlier this week).  So how do we make sure that this is something that integrates into the school’s approach?

The video below documents the first stages of a flexible musical instrument originally created for Planted Symphony last year, and currently being tested and updated by young musicians at Belvue School. Revisiting this project with the benefit of two years working with Chris (the school’s music teacher) and the young musician, it’s been useful to see what has stuck. We need something simple and sturdy, that doesn’t need to plug into a computer, with options relevant to the music sessions – but enough flexibility to provide access (i.e. options) for many different people.  And in keeping with the focus on youth voice in this project (as I believe should be the case anywhere), it needs to be created in conversation.

In this context, conversation often means lots of play, observation, space to do things differently.  It means suspending preconceptions, and moving back from instruction – never telling anyone how to play – as long as it stays safe and inclusive for others!

The version we’re using here works primarily as a switch box, but we can also plug in microphones and other types of sensors with minimal work.  All the sound is created by samples recorded directly into the box, which can be set up with the push of a couple of buttons.  In switch mode, it could be likened to a loop pedal or a row of Big Mack communicator switches.  It’s designed to be accessed directly by young musicians as well as teachers: there are no menus, no USB connection to set up on a laptop, no proprietary software to run.

These are the options I deemed appropriate to this context based on experience; if someone is interested and has the resources to tinker and update it or use it as a controller, the capability are there.  The electronic elements are based on a Bela board, and the cost of materials comes to about £200.

The design of the physical box will happen through a combination of drawing and 3D printing – and this is probably the clearest point of access for many of the young musicians (although I’m perfectly willing for us to have a few Pure Data sessions interspersed with blues piano if it comes up)!  I’m grateful to have spent a few sessions with Education Makers in Montreal this spring, who taught me about spreading openness and collaborative attitudes, as well as some practical tips on design that have enabled this process to be applied in a school setting within weeks! Check out some of the other results of that visit on GitHub.

Current version of the instrument in development: 3D-printed letters combined with a temporary tupperware box. Thanks to Tim Yates for help with the soldering on the original.

There will be many challenges in development. I can’t pretend that this is a fully collaborative project – given the time constraints and other forms of musicianship we need to cover in our one to one sessions, I’m still very much overseeing it, and taking on the code side of things.  Another key issue with bespoke technology is that it is so often confined to a particular context.  This is the toughest part in many ways: how do we make this portable and transferrable?  One could argue that like any other musical activity, the instrument should be the medium for a deeper interaction..but there’s a very real issue with taking away specific means of access by restricting something to a venue or institution.

One of the reasons Chris and I have moved away from overtly labelled “accessible music technology” in our classes is that we don’t foresee the young musicians finding them independently down the line, mostly due to cost and in some cases complexity or need for support.  But similar issues manifest in unexpected ways with mainstream tools, such as iPads.  Like, for example, the way that Apple has inadvertently disabled GarageBand for many schools by forcing them to update iOS but removing download options for compatible versions.

Hopefully, by using open source tools and keeping the designs available online, welcoming derivatives, we can inspire people to make more of these instruments – with the growing availability of resources like Bela, Microbit, and Raspberry Pi (the latter two already growing in popularity around schools as affordable options), young musicians should absolutely have the opportunities to be players in this movement as well as teachers and workshop leaders.

The next challenge for this particular project? Making the designs and resources accessible.

Update 30/04/18

Here’s some additional video from development with the post-16 group:

Watch this space for an initial link to the instrument plans.