Drake Music Scotland is bringing together young musicians with different abilities and experience levels to perform specially commissioned pieces incorporating music technology

It is Tuesday evening, The Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh is full with 100 expectant guests. The quartet of musicians are ready. Rhona plays a dark and low brass chord, Antony joins in with deep string samples on iPad. Emma on Skoog and Stephanie on iPad wait for their entry before the audience hear all four players in the quartet for the first time.

The Deep takes the listener on a 10-minute journey from the depths of the ocean to the tumultuous surface of a stormy sea and up into the air where birds swoop and dive. The quartet play music they have composed, performing live, with independent control. This performance by the Digital Ensemble was one of the highlights of my career so far with Drake Music Scotland. I was delighted to see the young musicians working together as an ensemble, producing music that was impressive, moving and accomplished – music worth hearing, and worth sharing with the widest audience.

Although there has been a welcome increase in the provision of quality music opportunities for young people with Additional Support Needs there are still relatively few chances for young musicians with disabilities to have regular, progressive, musical training. Over the last two years Drake Music Scotland has created new ensembles, bringing together young musicians with different abilities and experience levels, to perform specially commissioned new music.

We are gradually building up a repertoire of new pieces that incorporate music technology and this short article looks at one such group of musicians, The Digital Ensemble, and one of the large scale projects, Technophonia.

The Digital Ensemble

Each member of The Digital Ensemble has a passion for music and a commitment to rehearsing and performing, but their disabilities mean that they cannot access mainstream musical opportunities performing on conventional acoustic instruments. This is where Drake Music Scotland uses over 18 years of experience to develop and refine solutions for disabled musicians to make music to an extremely high level.

The Digital Ensemble is not about music therapy or about music education; it is about performing new music for new instruments in professional venues. The ensemble meets every week for rehearsals at our Edinburgh base and recent performances venues include the Scottish Parliament, University of Edinburgh and the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

Meet the ensemble. Emma loves music of all kinds and she performs using a Skoog. This tactile and expressive instrument appeals to her because she enjoys interacting with the physical object in order to play and control musical sounds. We have used both the Skoog’s own sounds through its software programme and have also used it to control libraries of sampled sounds on Logic. The fact that Skoog has only five sides also helps Emma to feel less daunted when she improvises – she is drawn to the Skoog and really enjoys playing it.

Rhona performs using a music programme called Notion. She triggers her part using a simple switch to determine the rhythmic shape and pace of the music and is part ‘conductor’, part ‘performer’ of the score. Although her movement and fine motor control is limited she has a musicality and presence that is clearly conveyed through her control of Notion using a switch. We are developing extra expressive control potential to her performances using touch-based interfaces such as iPad and iPhone. Stephanie and Antony both perform using iPad and a fantastic app called Thumbjam.

Photos by Ken Dundas - top left Emma, top right Rhona, bottom left Stephanie, bottom right Chris

Photos by Ken Dundas – top left Emma, top right Rhona, bottom left Stephanie, bottom right Anthony

This app is very versatile and can be set up to suit each individual musician. Stephanie particularly likes the sound of a flute and she can perform music with this instrument by using one, two or more fingers on the simple bars of Thumbjam. Antony loves the electric guitar on Thumbjam which is extremely responsive to touch and has a great sound. The notes can be set to match any scale or key, the size of the bars can be adjusted to suit different hands and there is a huge range of instruments that are instantly available; all these features make it an ideal tool for us to give our musicians instruments that are responsive and suited to their own ways of playing.


In 2012 we were delighted to be part of the New Music 20×12 Commissioning programme funded by the PRS for Music Foundation. The aim of the programme was to work with composers, musicians and organisations from all over the UK to ‘put new music at the heart of the Cultural Olympiad’ by creating 20 new pieces. We devised a new commission working with composer Oliver Searle and young musicians from Edinburgh including pupils from the City of Edinburgh Music School and participants from Drake Music Scotland.

The first step was to work closely with the composer who joined me for a series of exploratory workshops. I introduced him to a variety of music technology including Skoog, Soundbeam and Brainfingers. Each of these technologies has unique potential for allowing individuals with physical disabilities to perform as part of a live ensemble and through playing with settings and sounds I was able to show Oliver the kind of palette that was available. He then worked on first ideas and we began to try them out with the musicians.

One of the new developments that we were able to showcase as part of Technophonia was Brainfingers. This is a system that includes a headband fitted with sensors that detect electrical signals from facial muscles, eye movements, and brainwaves. Software converts forehead signals into computer controls or’ Brainfingers’.

Controls are tailored to the individual’s needs and can range from a simple left mouse click to a complex combination of cursor control, mouse buttons and keyboard keys. We used Brainfingers to control a music score on the Notion software and this enabled Chris to play a ragtime piano, be an entire New Orleans Street Band and also control some strange and mysterious chords – all through clicking his jaw.

The piece began to take shape over the summer of 2011 and we began full rehearsals early in 2012 with a unique orchestra that included violins, violas, cellos, piano, guitar, bass guitar, drums and Skoog, Soundbeam, Roland Handsonic and Brainfingers. This orchestra contained very experienced young musicians from City of Edinburgh Music School who had performed in hundreds of concerts and attended thousands of rehearsals.

It also contained three musicians from Drake Music Scotland who had never played as part of an ensemble before – they had never had the opportunity. They learned very quickly how to follow a conductor, how to play as an ensemble and also the importance of practising and taking responsibility for their own part. This aspect of the project was vital as both sets of musicians encountered the positive challenges set for them by Searle’s music.

Technophonia received its World Premiere in the Queens Hall in Edinburgh in June 2012 in front of a packed audience. A second performance took place at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow. We then took the whole ensemble to London for a memorable performance at the South Bank Centre as part of the 20×12 Festival shortly before the London Olympics. it was also broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 21 July. These performance opportunities ensured that the talent and achievement of all the young musicians involved reached as wide an audience as possible.

As well as the two featured projects we have also commissioned and performed new music for the St Magnus Festival (Orkney) and the Edinburgh International Harp Festival. We have many future commissions in the pipeline and our musicians are likely to be busy in the coming years. Our ambition for the future is that every pupil with Additional Support Needs will have the same opportunities to learn to play music and also take part in band, ensemble and orchestral activities on a local authority and national level.

Drake Music Scotland is dedicated to creating opportunities for people with Additional Support Needs to play, learn, compose and perform music. It was established in 1997 and is independent from our sister organisations Drake Music (England & Wales) and Drake Music Northern Ireland.

Supporting our belief that Everyone Can Play Music we have also developed a wide ranging programme of activity and resource support using Figurenotes© notation (see drakemusicscotland.org/figurenotes/ for more information). Drake Music Scotland gratefully acknowledges support from Creative Scotland and all the trusts, foundations and other funders of our programme.


About Contributors

Pete Sparkes is Artistic Director of Drake Music Scotland, the nation’s leading arts organisation providing music making opportunities for people with disabilities.

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