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Lying on a sound box: deaf children listen to music

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The National Orchestra of Wales has been staging unique workshops and concerts for deaf people. Radio 4 reporter Andrew Bomford discovers children listening to music in a very physical way and speaks to those behind it. Here he blogs about his emotional day.

I'll admit that I am a bit weepy sometimes. I cried at the end of Les Miserables, so the moment that the Welsh National Orchestra string section got started, and Katherine Mount stood there, signing and singing to her profoundly deaf - but clearly enraptured - ten year old son Ethan, I wasn't surprised to feel myself choking up again.

Watch Katherine Mount singing Ethan's Song on YouTube

It was towards the end of a long, joyful, but emotionally draining day with the orchestra and children from The Ysgol Maes Dyfan special school in Barry near Cardiff. Some of them are almost completely deaf and others have serious hearing problems, but the joy and enthusiasm shown by the children in their appreciation of the music they were experiencing was wonderful to see.

This was part of an outreach programme by the National Orchestra of Wales which has seen members of the orchestra regularly working with school children on musical improvisations, as well as the simple joy of making music. It was all culminating in a series of five free concerts for schools and the general public, taking part in Cardiff over the last couple of days.

So how does that work then, you might wonder? Music for deaf people? It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.

"Music can just affect people - there is an emotional connection," said Andy Everton, an Outreach Officer for the national orchestra, and himself a trumpet player, "I really don't think you have to hear it in order to appreciate it. There is an emotional connection which just happens."

Andy tells a story about going into a school and seeing a severely disabled deaf child who seemed to be incapable of any contact at all with anyone. He stood behind her playing the trumpet (with the sound dampened) and to everyone's amazement saw her reaction as she moved her eyes to follow the music wherever he went. It was the first time anyone had seen her make any kind of connection to the outside world.

Other children from the school just jumped at the opportunity to simply bang a drum, hold the bass clarinet or the harp as it was played, and to feel the curious sensation of the sound waves moving through their bodies via their sense of touch.

A deaf boy lies on a sound box hooked to a piano

The orchestra has also come up with an ingenious solution to the question of how deaf children can experience music.


They've built sound boxes - large wooden platforms, with heavy speakers inside them, which play the music, and are especially effective with the low frequency sounds, in a way that resonates sound through whatever part of the body is in contact with the box.

I saw deaf children sitting on the boxes, touching them with their hands, and even lying fully prone on them, with huge grins on their faces as they felt the vibrations of the music (You can see an explanation of this in the above video). Two deaf boys, Ethan (a different Ethan) and Ashley from Maes Dyfan school stood on the sound boxes and belted out a rap tune they'd improvised with the accompaniment of the orchestra.

"When they use the microphone they can feel their voices from the box and through their feet," explained Andy Pidcock, a keyboard player who's done a lot of work with deaf children, "They can feel everything they're doing and they can feel the beat." I tried it out myself - it was a fascinating sensation; somewhat similar to the thud of loud bass you can sometimes feel in your chest at a very loud concert.

The orchestra's work has been championed by the charity Music and the Deaf, run by Paul Whittaker. "This is the only occasion when an orchestra has done a fully integrated project for deaf people," Paul said, "Normally an orchestra might go into a deaf school or work with a group of deaf children. They might go to a concert where they sit and watch what goes on. Here it's fully participatory. They come and sit with the orchestra and take part."

But, as mentioned earlier, the tear-jerker of the night was certainly Katherine Mount's beautiful performance of "Ethan's Song". With a gorgeous show-tune style melody, it was written by Katherine's friend Helen Goldwyn, who was inspired after watching Ethan experiencing a music concert.

The song asks lots of fundamental questions about what the 10-year-old deaf boy is thinking and feeling as he connects to his mother through music:

What do you hear inside your head? Music, your music. I know I feel joy when sound connects to feeling, When the vibration meets the air.

"She was able to write the words of the song," recounted Katherine, "And when I heard them for the first time I was absolutely blown away that she'd managed to hit the nail on the head and express exactly what I'd been thinking for all those years."

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Publ.Date : Wed, 27 Feb 2013 09:02:07 +0000

"Cold, getting warmer, hot": New app helps blind people find each other

Emma tests a new prototype app that lets blind people find other blind people.

"We'd arranged to meet at a shopping mall but, as time went by, I began to wonder why my wife was so late," says Doug Wakefield, one half of a married blind couple visiting the CSUN accessible technology conference in San Diego last week.

His wife Judy picks up the story: "Eventually, someone came up to me and said, are you waiting for a man with a guide dog?

"We were to meet at the main entrance but I was to the left of the door and Doug was standing to the right, only ten feet away."

Lots of blind people have blind friends, so This game of cat and mouse takes place regularly. It can be funny but it's certainly a little frustrating.

As smart phones are fast becoming a basic part of a blind person's toolkit, it's perhaps not surprising that someone has now created "an app for that".

People Finder has a very basic but accessible interface. Like mainstream products with similar aims, such as Grindr for the gay community and Spotme for networking at conferences, you have to have the app running if you want to meet up with people in your circle.

It alerts a user, via a vibration and a noise, when someone else with the app comes within 50 feet. It uses Bluetooth to detect people.

As you search for your friend, the app will let you know how close you are, by saying "near" or "cold" as you walk around.

To aid social niceties, There's the option to message the person through the app to say you've clocked them, before descending on them.

Mike May is The brains behind People Finder, which is being developed by his company Sendero Group. They have 13 years experience of making accessible satnav solutions for blind pedestrians but Mike says he has wanted to make a people finding app for a long time.

"As a blind person I'd love to be made aware of when somebody I know is near by, so that I can meet with them," he says. "As a bonus, you will also be careful not to talk about someone if you know they might be in hearing distance."

Another attendee of the CSUN conference is Julian Vargas from California. He hopes to test out the app on a local bus route to see if he can spot the bus his friend is already on, so they can travel together. His friend can't see to wave to him through the window and so it's very easy to get on the wrong one, alone.

"The way we tend to do it now," says Julian, "is by sending text messages. This app would be nice because if my friends are running it, when their bus pulls up, theoretically, all of a sudden my phone should ding and say that it sees their phone."

Blind people already have a range of strategies for letting a sightless friend know they are nearby. The best way is to use your voice so your friend can hear you but, socially speaking, it looks a little odd just talking to yourself so blind people might pretend to be having a phone conversation or pet their guide dogs saying "good boy Buttons" a little more loudly than usual.

It may have crossed your mind that there might be a big security risk with having already vulnerable people announcing themselves digitally over the air so others can find them. Some apps of the people-finding variety have caused concern but the dynamics seem a bit different here. Potential sighted stalkers can already see blind people at 50 feet, and are likely to know they can't see if they're using a dog, a white cane or that they're not negotiating obstacles very elegantly, so the app isn't going to betray them any more than normal in most circumstances. Blind users may consider this an acceptable risk if it means that they too can spot their pals.

One hundred people are currently testing the prototype app, which can be used indoors or outdoors wherever you are in the world. Mike May is having trouble getting funders to see why blind people would need it and wants all current testers to form a "fan club" to raise its profile.

Now for a blind access app that keeps track of your children in crowded shopping malls, a GPS app which is accurate to within 1 CM and perhaps, one that
can plot a direct route into the arms of a soulmate.


Publ.Date : Wed, 06 Mar 2013 12:00:47 +0000


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