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David Nabb playing the Toggle-key Saxophone (courtesy One-Handed Musical Instrument Trust)

If you want to play an orchestral instrument and have a disability restricting play to one hand, there are currently no options. A competition underway organized by the One-Handed Musical Instrument Trust (OHMI) with Ars Electronica is striving to improve opportunities for those excluded from music.

“Our ultimate objective is for undifferentiated participation for the disabled in musical life,” OHMI founder Stephen Hetherington told Hyperallergic. In 2013, the inaugural year of the annual competition, the winner in the Playable category (there is also a Concept category) was the Toggle-key Saxophone, which Hetherington said “at first sounded too good to be true.”

Created by instrument technician Jeff Stelling and David Nabb — a University of Nebraska at Kearney music professor and stroke survivor — it has no mouthpiece changes so no alterations in sound production, and even “claimed greater facility than the traditional instrument.” Like the saxophone, all entries must be “capable of fully and accurately emulating a traditional instrument.” This year’s winners will be featured at September’s Ars Electronica art and technology festival in Linz, Austria.

“As instruments come to us, we believe the technological solutions, whether mechanical or electronic, will be transferable to other instruments such that we can re-adapt them for a wide range of disabilities,” Hetherington explained. “Already our attention is turning to commissioning and teaching these instruments. As a result of our collaboration with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and others, even a route through to professional careers for the disabled is becoming a real prospect.”

OHMI also works with the people like Andrew McPherson at the Augmented Instruments Laboratory in the Centre for Digital Music at London’s Queen Mary University, whose team experiments with combining electronics and traditional instruments. Most musicians who play with disabilities have to find their own modifications since nothing is widely available, whether it’s Def Leppard’s Rick Allen with his elaborate one-armed electronic pedal-driven drum kit, or this simpler custom one-handed flute propped up on a cymbal stand with some key alterations made for a young girl in Texas.

“If you have even a slight impairment, perhaps from an injury, arthritis, or a stroke, or if you are hemi or quadriplegic, an amputee, or perhaps disabled through cerebral palsy, you will be unable to participate in making music,” Hetherington stated. “For these people, the experience of performing our most perfect aesthetic form is denied. It is within our ability to change this.”

The 2014 OHMI-Ars Electronica Competition is open through May 1. Entries can be submitted onlineArs Electronica is September 4-8 in Linz, Austria.  

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...