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‘Connected as one’: orchestra is being redefined for visually impaired musicians

Marc Henshall, Shure’s senior marketing specialist, pro audio, gives us insight into the Baton Project, which is innovating the traditional orchestral structure to include the visually impaired

At present, visually impaired musicians around the world are much less able to play with traditional conducted orchestras as they cannot physically see the conductor to follow their lead. This is a huge missed opportunity for all music lovers, conductors, orchestra members and listeners alike, as it is well known that visually impaired musicians are some of the best musicians around; they are often unique in their playing styles and unparalleled in their abilities.

The Baton Project aims to progress music accessibility forever, bringing about a shift in music culture as powerful as that of the Paralympic games phenomenon. The scope of the project is to research, design, build, test, demonstrate and document a new conductor’s baton that sends wireless signals to wearable vibration devices, enabling visually impaired musicians to play with traditional orchestras and conductors. This new device captures the speed, angle, attack and sway of a conductor’s hand in real time and beams it directly to every player wearing a vibration receiver. They feel the expression and timing of the conductor – just as if they were seeing the baton itself.

Human Instruments, a company that makes high quality musical instruments for people with physical disabilities, has worked closely with The Paraorchestra and Friends and their conductor, alongside artistic director Charles Hazlewood, to develop and put the Baton Project through its paces. Shure has shown their support in this fantastic project by providing PSM900 in-ear monitoring systems to transmit the vibration signals as audio from the conductor’s baton directly to a wearable device, worn by the visually impaired musician to receive signalling and direction for their performance.

Marc Henshall, senior marketing specialist, pro audio, for Shure, explains why this project is important for the company: “Music is a universal language that transcends many cultural boundaries. The Baton Project represents a huge step forward in accessibility for musicians that serves to further enrich our enjoyment of music. It is widely understood that when one sense diminishes, others often heighten. Orchestral music could soon see an influx of incredible new talent thanks to this noble project, and we think that’s an exciting prospect for the future of music.”

The first test lab and concert using the Haptic Baton at St George’s was an amazing success, exceeding all expectations, with over 50 invited audience members and 12 musicians from the Paraorchestra and Friends in the UK and Dominant Agency in Korea. They will now devise the best way to showcase and proliferate this ground-breaking innovative work, worldwide.

Visually impaired pianist, Rachel Starritt, explains how the concert felt. “The vibrations and buzzing of the Haptic Baton had a sensation which we could react to like magnesium. All of a sudden, we were in this liberating universe, connected as one unity, rather than the beats providing a rhythmic obstacle that we had to face.”

Working closely with programmer and developer Charles Matthews, Vahakn Matossian took his father Rolf Gehlhaar’s original prototype (dubbed Beat Buzz) to the next level with, gesture sensitivity and zero latency stereo haptic response. Vahakn explains “All the testing has been so revealing, it either flies or it doesn’t. There’s no halfway. Latency is out of the question, and crystal radio transmission is the backbone. Shure have provided an unparalleled system. It really helps to work with exceptional gear.”

“This is a world’s first. No conductor has ever wirelessly transmitted simultaneously to both multiple visually impaired and sighted orchestral musicians with the same baton.” Human Instruments are actively seeking collaborative projects and financial support. They also welcome new players and team members.

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