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Guelph Jazz Festival helps kids find their voices through technology

View photos of the performance

The gamut of music-making technology – from simple tin can shakers to advanced tangible electronic surfaces – contributed to the upbeat sound of the annual KidsAbility Youth Orchestra concert at the 2014 Guelph Jazz Festival.

At the KidsAbility Youth Orchestra concert at the 2014 Guelph Jazz Festival, musicians created music with AUMI software. ©2014 Brett Delmage

The result was lots of smiles and action – for both the participants and the children and adults in the audience – at the show at Guelph City Hall.

Each year, the Guelph Jazz Festival commissions a musician to work with young musicians with disabilities to help them learn more about music and tools they can use to express themselves musically. This year, Ottawa percussionist Jesse Stewart (who recently worked with disabled adults at H'Art of Ottawa) came to a local day camp run by Playsense to work with nine youth, for an hour daily over one week in late August. Most of the young musicians he worked with were able to participate in the Youth Orchestra concert which opened the jazz festival's series of free Saturday concerts.

At the concert, Stewart mentioned that this work exploring possible future sounds tied into the festival's theme of “Sounding Futures”.

The tools Stewart taught the students began with rattles, squeakers, and other simple percussion instruments. But they also included the AUMI (Adaptive Use Musical Instrument) software and the Reactable.

The AUMI software, developed by musician Pauline Oliveros' Deep Listening Institute, runs on iPads. Using the iPad camera, the software detects the musician's movements and uses those to modulate stored musical instrument clips. Users can play anything from strings to timpani, in many different keys, simply by moving their hands in different ways in front of the iPad.

The Reactable is an electronic instrument, on whose tabletop interface musicians can place blocks called tangibles, which are programmed to play musical clips. Musicians can play on the tabletop or by virtually connecting the tangibles to morph and overlap sounds.

At the concert, each of the musicians had an AUMI iPad and speaker in front of him or her, as well as a tin can, and a selection of shared percussion instruments. Directed by Stewart, they started with simple percussion and moved to playing their AUMIs together. One musician, Emma, was grinning widely as she got more and more interesting harp sounds from her AUMI, through moving her arms around and about and over her head.

Stewart then invited the students one by one to perform on the Reactable, coaching them as they succeeded in trying out new sounds and combinations. With the students playing both the AUMIs and the Reactable, the room was filled with a bright, sunny beat that had several children in the audience dancing along.

At the end of the show, Stewart invited audience members up to play with the AUMI iPads and the Reactable. The crowd, clearly fascinated by the technology, immediately surged up and had a great time looking at and intently playing with the devices. Both adults and children asked many questions and got very involved in creating their own musical spaces – the perfect ending to a learning experience.

    – Alayne McGregor

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All photos ©2014 Brett Delmage
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Full disclosure: The Guelph Jazz Festival assisted Alayne McGregor and Brett Delmage in finding a family who very generously billeted us in Guelph, so we could afford to report on the festival.