This story really starts in 1994 when I met James at a birthday party where I was entertaining. James was 8yrs old at the time. He was blind and, usually, he would go into another room because music upset him, but on this occasion he stood by me throughout, taking part in everything, even down to singing over the microphone! The hostess said she saw James ‘flower’ during the party, and I gave him an ocarina before I left. Sometime later, I got a phone call from James, asking me to teach him the ocarina, and things have been progressing from then on.
Since we first met, James has gathered together about 30 musical instruments. He loves music and, in particular, the ocarina, which is a form of whistle and comes in various sizes and tunings.
Then some months ago, the Blue Flash Music Trust received an email from the Ocarina Workshop telling us that the RNIB had published a braille book of ocarina music, which turned out to be an exact copy of the book James uses. On buying the book I realised that the braille book was of no use to the sighted person, as it was like looking at a landscape covered with snow.
The need for the Tablet Ocarina Project was identified; the aim of it being to create a common ground so that the sighted and the non-sighted musician can ‘read’ the music together. Things moved forward quite quickly on coming across the HackHorsham display in Swan Walk shopping mall in November.
By linking up pieces of fruit to a computer, a simple tune could be played. It was clear that the tablature, set out in the original ocarina book, could become a ‘live’ keyboard, something the Trust had, in part, already created, where the non-sighted person could feel the dots as bumps and know which note to play.
A prototype was made using plastic and a bit of cardboard. When tried out, James was able to read the music and play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
The keyboard could become live, but the plastic bumps needed to become metal ones in order to conduct electricity. A new version was placed before James, who was able to recognise it as Twinkle, just by feeling the shapes made by the brads, far more easily.
One of the differences between the first prototype and the second is that the dots have been placed closer together, so that James can read the note with just one finger. This led to the creation of a keyboard, where wires are sandwiched underneath.
At a HackHorsham event in April, with the help of 12 year old Jonathan, the keyboard was found to work through a Raspberry Pi, and speaker, so that the note D (seen as four dots in the ocarina book and formed with four metal brads on the keyboard) gave the note D.
The significance of this achievement was even more apparent during a recent session with James. We could now work together on a particular section of music and we could both ‘read’ the brads and James could pick up his ocarina and play that phrase of music. What a step forward this was, particularly when, at that time, the keyboard had not even been attached to a computer!
With the loan of a Raspberry Pi, and working with Jonathan of HackHorsham, the keyboard has been found to work. The Trust, has purchased all the items, and will bring them together for the HackHorsham event on July 10 at the Capitol Theatre. James cannot wait to get his hands on the project!