Tapping my left foot

Deep Listening Institute in Kingston demos adaptive music-making software for the mobility-impaired this Sunday

by Frances Marion Platt
March 24, 2011 11:41 AM | 0 0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Photo of Pauline Oliveros by Gisela Gamper
Photo of Pauline Oliveros by Gisela Gamper
Cyndi Lauper may have had something a little more specific in mind when she pointed out in song that she bop, he bop and we bop, but it’s true in a more general sense as well: While not all of us are blessed with the rhythm gene, and a few folks would sooner eat ground glass than be seen dancing in a public place, pretty much everybody tends to bop a little when the right bit of music gets under their skin. Maybe all we do is discreetly tap a toe or shyly sway in place, or remain seated but drum our fingers on the edge of the table; still, there’s something in the human body that really wants to move in time with certain sound patterns. And many of us outright want to get up and boogie like nobody’s watching.

But what about all those people whose corporeal beings are disconnected from that primal rhythmic urge due to some kind of physical or neurological disability? If you’d been dancing all your life and suddenly found yourself paraplegic due to a spinal cord injury, say, would life no longer seem worth living? How can you connect in a visceral way with the music when you can only move a few square inches of your body?

Leaf Miller – a name that should be familiar to many Alm@nac readers as one of the mainstays of the Hudson Valley’s vibrant grassroots drumming community – got to wondering about this conundrum while working with people of all ages who have disabilities in her day job as occupational therapist. For 23 years now, she has been employed by a Poughkeepsie-based social service agency called Abilities First, Inc. (AFI). Drum classes have long been an essential component of Miller’s therapeutic services, but she found herself frustrated that so many of her clients were simply unable to manipulate the simplest rhythm instrument. So she turned to one of the region’s most innovative musical minds: Pauline Oliveros, avant-garde composer and founder of the Deep Listening Institute (DLI) in Kingston.

Among her many other talents, Oliveros is known for her openness to the incorporation of all sorts of cutting-edge technologies into the music-making process. So when Miller approached her with a request for help to develop ways for students with extremely limited voluntary muscular control to play in her drum class at AFI, the wheels started turning. Together they created a webcam-based system that can track minute movements at specific points on a human body, adjustable to a particular individual’s abilities, and interface them electronically with musical instruments. There are no invasive devices. Using the setup that Oliveros and Miller developed, even a person who can only move a small muscle group (think of the heroes of My Left Foot or The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is able to produce sounds and create rhythmic patterns from those movements.

The project, christened Adaptive Use Musical Instruments (AUMI), sets its sights higher than just giving mobility-impaired people one more occupational therapy activity: It envisions whole ensembles of people with both physical and cognitive disabilities becoming able to experience the joy of improvisation – to create actual art. Miller has been putting the AUMI software interface to use at the AFI School since 2007 to expand musical expression for children with special needs. Observing these students using the software has brought DLI to an understanding that the least possible motion indicates life and musical ability.

While AUMI can be used by anyone, the focus of this pilot project has been on working with children who have profound disabilities. In taking these participants as its starting point, the project attempts to make musical improvisation and collaboration accessible to the widest possible range of individuals. Everyone who has participated in this research has been deeply moved by the results of the work, according to DLI.

Now the general public – and in particular, people who work with people with disabilities – is being offered the opportunity to see this adaptive technology in action and learn the basics of its use. This Sunday, March 27, DLI will host the first of three workshops to educate teachers, therapists, aides and families in how to use AUMI with improvisation and drumming. This two-hour open house will discuss the uses of AUMI in home, educational and therapeutic settings, as well as demonstrate an open drum circle collaboration using percussion instruments and the AUMI software interface. Pauline Oliveros will introduce the session; then Leaf Miller and DLI’s technical assistant Jaclyn Heyen will demonstrate how to use AUMI. After the demos the public will be invited to participate in the music-making.

DLI is already offering access to the AUMI software as a free download in both PC and Mac versions at and is committed to keeping it available to all, free of charge. Numerous people have downloaded the software and are using it in many parts of the world. In this way, DLI expects to continue to develop the software with the collaboration of a widening community of many users.

“Improvisation across Abilities: Adaptive Use Musical Instruments Open House” will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. this Sunday at the Deep Listening Space, located at the Shirt Factory at 77 Cornell Street, Suite 303 in Midtown Kingston. The building is wheelchair-accessible. For more information, call (845) 338-5984.

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