ISME 2016: The Gloves Are ON!

Kris Halpin presents his work with Drake Music & the MiMu Gloves for an international audience at ISME2016.
Kris Halpin presents his work with Drake Music & the MiMu Gloves for an international audience at ISME2016.

It’s never dull, this (g)lovely adventure. Touring and performing my own music, often to paying audiences, with new technology used in a unique way… Sigh. It’s a good gig.

There’s another side to all this of course; one that is hugely rewarding. As I hope you know already, I’m one of Drake Music’s Associate Musicians. The AMs at DM (as we say) are an amazing bunch of hugely talented musicians making huge differences by doing amazing work. Associate Musicians use different skills to innovate with a clear goal in sight: to make music-making more accessible. The variety of skills shared between us all is key to the success of the programme. Some people are born teachers, able to inspire people with the simplest of ideas. Some people are incredible technologists, able to bring electronic and coding skills to solve accessibility problems. Needless to say, we all are competent musicians and recording artists in our own rights. That’s important; I believe this sort of work demands ‘real-world’ experience. Over the years well meaning people have tried to nudge me to focus my efforts more firmly on teaching music, but that’s a red herring – I’m a good music teacher only because I continue to push myself to be the best musician I can be. Drake Music is no place for half-hearted musos to rest on their laurels.

My appearance at ISME was brought about by collaboration between Drake Music Scotland, and us in London as Drake Music; “Drake Music South” as I now know we are informally referred to as. DM and DM Scotland; two charities with the same goals in sight; to make music more accessible. It was great to finally get up to Scotland to meet the team, having only been able to read about their work. It’s always great to enter a situation like that; meeting for the first time, but having so many common ideas, goals and experiences.

I’ve made quite a racket about my work with the mimu gloves, so of course ISME was a perfect opportunity to talk about my work, and the value of this technology in a SEN/D context. Besides the gloves, I was also there to discuss Think2020, a national strategic project funded by Youth Music, running through to 2018. Implementing Think2020 is one of many exciting responsibilities we have as Associate Musicians. Our key aims are to:

  • Contribute to every disabled young person having the opportunity to access and progress in music-making.
    Influence national policy and practice.
  • SEND music provision to become an integral part of music hubs’ offer.
  • Establish and support a community of learning.

There’s loads of aspects of #Think2020 I’m hugely excited about, mostly to be discussed another time. One thing I was keen to discuss in my talk was the very fact that I was there to discuss the project at all. My first contact with Drake Music was from way outside the organisation, 100 miles away in the Midlands, with no meaningful links to any kind of network or support in the context of being a disabled musician. I’d never even met another disabled musician then. I was out-of-work, very much struggling, and reaching out to Drake Music for help. Some almost/nearly projects came and went; not quite right for me, but I was on the radar.

It was a couple of years before the gloves came along, and as part of DM’s R&D programme led by the genuinely brilliant Gawain Hewitt, I was sent by Drake Music to Imogen Heap’s countryside home, to be one of the first people ever to see and use this near-mythical new wearable musical instrument. At the time I assumed I’d spend a few weeks tinkering with the gloves, I’d write a blog about my experience, and get back to the uncertain wilderness of my troubled music making. Gawain had a much bolder vision; that of me as a successful, touring “gloves-only” artist. I was incredibly excited by that idea, and Gawain and DM decided to entrust me to take the project further, to take the gloves home, and give me the freedom and support to try and reinvent my musicianship through this new instrument. Two years later, and you probably know the story. A headline UK tour, UK and European festival appearances, incredibly flattering coverage of the project in national newspapers, interviews on BBC1 and BBC Radio 1… it’s been quite an extraordinary journey. It’s one that starts with trust. I had nothing. Okay, maybe I had given some clues to my potential, but I was nowhere. Two years later, I’m standing on a stage in front of educators from all over the world, being paid to represent Drake Music, and tell my story. That’s pretty extraordinary, and I want audiences to know that. The reason they’re seeing me at all is because organisations like DM can and do make a difference. It’s an honour to represent DM and relive that journey, from a bedroom in North Warwickshire to a stage at an international event; proof if proof were needed, that this work matters.

My only regret was that, as is often the case, this was a very brief visit. We had to disappear fairly quickly after the presentation to catch our plane home, so there wasn’t time to take in more of what was being presented at ISME. There was time for lunch and a quick mingle; lots of really positive feedback, which I’m pretty modest about taking credit for. The gloves certainly do capture people’s imaginations. It’s easy to forget that only to be taken aback by people’s reactions. I’ve made it my job to work hard to push the boundaries of what is possible with the gloves, and I know their strengths, limitations and idiosyncrasies intimately. It’s easy to get used to a particularly effect or device; I’ve strummed an invisible guitar with the gloves countless times – for audiences, they (of course) have almost no frame of reference for that. The Ooohs and Ahhhs and looks of disbelief are always reward aplenty for my seemingly endless tweaking.

Gestural music interfaces have an incredible future; that much is clear from the degree of fascination people have with my work, and this has only just begun. The field will inevitably advance far beyond even what I can imagine right now; I’m incredibly proud to be right here at the start, even if it is terrifying at times! You take a lot of gambles when you set out to innovate, but for all the times it’s not worked out so well, there have been many more hugely rewarding ones. I’m incredibly fortunate of course that Drake Music trust in me to take on the gloves project and allow me to keep pushing to break new ground. That trust in artist development, that vision to overcome access barriers; as someone who’s benefited immeasurably from this; that’s my very personal reason as to why I believe Drake Music is so important.