Making Music Modifiable

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The look on their client’s face was one of gratitude.

This is the goal for everyone involved in the Adaptable Musical Instrument Engineering program, a semester-long project assigned to freshman students in ENGR 112: Introduction to Engineering. Students construct adaptable musical instruments for local clients with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities.

“It’s just the idea of making the impossible possible,” Alex Gellios, a sophomore engineering major, says.

Last spring, students in the class were split into groups and chose a traditional instrument to alter for their client.

The goal is “not to be the best in the world, it’s to be the best for the world,” Kyle Gipson, an engineering professor, says.

Gipson oversees the project along with engineering professor Brent Cunningham and music professor        Paul Ackerman.

To help with the musical aspect of the project, each team had at least one student majoring in music education in their group.

Clients were music students from Smithland and Stone Spring elementary schools who had limited instrument options because of their disabilities. Other groups were assigned clients from The Arc of Harrisonburg, an organization supporting the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“They wanted something physical delivered to them that they could use by the end of the semester,” Grace Carter, a sophomore engineering major, says. “I was like, ‘There’s no way. How are we possibly going to do this?’”

Carter and Gellios’ group was assigned clients from The Arc who had limited range of motion and trouble grasping certain instruments.

“We got to interact and ask them questions,” Carter says. “It was a great experience and then I got to come back to my group and tell them we’re working with real people.”

According to Gipson, after the students met with their clients face-to-face, their outlook on the project changed.

“When you see that other person and you’re going, ‘Oh wow, I really am designing for someone else. It’s not about what I want. It’s about what they need,’” Gipson says.

Carter’s group decided to construct a string bass instrument. Their clients could already work with handbells and play them facing downward, so they wanted to make a string bass that could be played in a similar motion.

Gellios says there were multiple stages throughout the project. The beginning stage was research, where students found out more about their clients and how the instruments work. Next, students drew potential sketches of what they wanted their creation to look like. Finally, they built an alpha prototype, which was the basis for their final product. Once they worked around initial problems, they built their beta prototype, which is the final product.

One group of students designed a bass drum for a client who uses a wheelchair. The drum sat on the side bars of the wheelchair, allowing it to be removed easily. The client didn’t have the capability to grasp a mallet, so the students devised an electronic push button that allowed their client to press the button, triggering the mallet to hit the drum.

There were some check-in dates with the professors to show the students’ progress, but throughout the design process, it was the students’ responsibility to take the project head-on.

“It was nice to see them take ownership and take full agency of the product,” Gipson says.

According to Carter, her group had tremendous chemistry from the beginning.

“Everybody’s strengths balanced out everybody’s weaknesses,” Carter says.

The group visited The Arc and presented their clients with the finished product.

“As soon as we walked in there, we just set it down and our clients walked up to it,” Gellios says. “We didn’t show them how to play it, they just started playing it.”

Gellios says engineering is more than just math and science, and this project proves it.

“Part of engineering is just being able to help society and doing what is right,” Gellios says. ”And being able to see The Arc’s reaction and being able to better their lives is what engineering is to me,”

Carter says the project has made a lasting impact on her.

“I’m going to be talking about this project for a long time,” Carter says.  “I loved the group I was working with and the impact we were able to make.”

According to Cunningham, the students accomplished their goal: bridging the gaps between music, technology, design and engineering for the purpose of inclusion.

“I think it really exemplifies what the department’s goal is, which is to have the students go through the design process in order to design for others,” Cunningham says. “Engineering is not just science and math, it’s something more. It’s about being grounded and understanding your values and putting yourself in the best position where you can help others.” 

Photo Courtesy of Grace Carter