The Magic Flute - The Head Sets the Tone

The Magic Flute is an electronic wind instrument with a special purpose. A wonderful sounding instrument in its own right, it is conceived to be played without the use of the hands, making it practical for people with disabilities to make beautiful music. Since the sound of the instrument is produced electronically and played through amplified speakers, it is a also a terrific instrument for people with pulmonary dysfunction. In this video clip, you can see Karin van Dijk playing the Magic Flute despite her limited lung capacity www.youtube.com/watch?v=JK3lNIjXE-E.

Not only does it reduce the physical challenge of playing an instrument, but it is amazing to see how quickly a complete novice can produce interesting music. Watch Esther, who is blind, at the end of her first session with the instrument www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4EulBoILwo. Since the instrument lends itself to beautiful improvisation, as well as performing music written for it, it is very useful in many therapy settings, including very young players and musicians with lower cognitive levels.

The Magic Flute has two parts, a "flute" and a control module with integrated display. The flute piece is mounted on a tripod and can be easily tilted up and down by the musician's head movements. This selects the note played while blowing into the flute. Blowing harder produces more volume. Settings in the control module allow the musician to change the scale of the instrument and select from 128 different instrument sounds including flute, sax, trumpet, or even a screaming guitar. The musician can use the flute piece to change the control module settings remotely without help from another person. The control module also displays the note being played. This is helpful for the musician who prefers to play written compositions. A growing collection of sheet music specially written for the Magic Flute is available as a free download at the mybreathmymusic.com web site.

The Magic Flute is a self-contained instrument with its own tone generating hardware built into the control module. Plug into a simple set of inexpensive computer speakers, and you can make music. For the adventurous player who wants to go beyond the sounds of the Magic Flute, additional sound sources like keyboards, synthesizers, and music computers can be controlled by connecting the Magic Flute to them with a standard MIDI cable. Watch Karin van Dijk performing the love theme from Blade Runner www.youtube.com/watch?v=tICPTmz1gfo to have a better idea of what can be done.

The Magic Flute was developed for and by "My Breath My Music," through the efforts of David Whalen (New York - USA), Brian Dillon (Kilkenny - Ireland), and Ruud van der Wel (Rotterdam - Netherlands).

To see the amazing moment when one person with a "disability" discovers an "ability," please watch the video clip of six-year old Glenn as he tries the Magic Flute for the first time. www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPgsS4UNKeM.

Daily Gazette article-The Magic Flute June 2007

BY BILL BUELL
Gazette Reporter

Dave Whalen can't actually do a drum solo, strum a guitar, or manipulate the keys on a saxophone. He can, however, make beautiful music, and thanks to the efforts of an enterprising physical therapist/musician in the Netherlands by the name of Ruud van der Wel, his musical options seem limitless.

The two men first met a few years ago on the internet, and since that time have worked together - through e-mail and e-conferencing - to come up with a ground-breaking musical instrument they call the Magic Flute. It's an amalgamation of the slide flute Whalen, a quadriplegic, had made for himself, and the electronic saxophone, or Wx5, that van der Wel uses as part of his respiratory therapy work with children.

"We're hoping that some day the kid with the most profound disability will be playing some wonderfully-sounding, electronically synthesized flute or trumpet," said Whalen, an attorney who works for the Office of Court Administration in Cohoes. "A kid who never dreamed he'd be able to participate, will be playing music in the school band."

They're not there yet, but Whalen and van der Wel are convinced they're on their way. A guitarist and keyboard player in his own band, van der Wel first started implementing music into his physical therapy program eight years ago.

"What triggered the idea was watching this fellow work with children and a wind controller," said van der Wel. "I thought, 'I have to try this at the rehabilitation center,' so I did and it worked very well. I started with just two kids, but I could see the enjoyment they got out of it, and I got so much positive feedback from parents and teachers."

The therapy does more than just make an individual feel good about playing music. It can make them healthier.

"One of the reasons I started was because, as a quad, your lungs get tight over the years and stop expanding as much as they used to," said Whalen. "I thought playing music might be a fun activity to fight that."

That's exactly what van der Wel was thinking.

"We're doing a pilot study with kids who have never had respiratory therapy with a musical instrument and we're going to see what kind of effect it has on their lungs after three months," said van der Wel. "The doctors like what we're doing, but they want more proof. As David knows, these kids have very little lung capacity, and without the music the therapy can get very boring. The music gets them emotionally involved, and they're more likely to practice every day."

For van der Wel's most disabled patients, however, playing a wind controller or an electronic sax was still quite a reach. What he was looking for was something that allowed a severely disabled person - a person with very limited use of their hands - to play the instrument by moving their head. Whalen, meanwhile, who was injured in a skiing accident in 1981, had been experimenting with making music for quite some time, and originally took up the harmonica, the only instrument he figured he would ever be able to play. However, when a close friend, B.J. Henry, created a slide flute that allowed Whalen to change the pitch with head movements, he started thinking of other possibilities. Then, one day he happened to come across van der Wel's Web site, www.mybreathmymusic.com. "David was one of the first people to contact me after I built my Web site," said van der Wel. "I had been having such great success at the rehabilitation center with the wind controllers, I wanted to share it with the world. David had been playing his harmonica and he and his friend [Henry] had come up with the idea to buy a slide scope. I had the electronic sax, they had the slide flute, so we realized that if we could marry these two things we might come up with a brand new instrument with endless possibilities."

Van der Wel and Whalen worked together to come up with a paper detailing exactly what their new instrument should look like, and sent the proposal to universities in the U.S., the Netherlands and Great Britain. They got no response. Fortunately, however, van der Wel made the acquaintance of Brian Dillon of Unique Perspectives, a company based in Ireland. "I asked him if he would please read our paper; he did on the plane back to Ireland, and he was mailing me the next day telling me what an astounding idea it was," said van der Wel. "He built a demo version about a year ago, and we've been getting feedback from my patients and from some other people with spinal cord injuries, and in April we got what we feel is the perfect final version."

The Magic Flute swivels on top of a camera mount and is moved up or down using the mouth piece. An internal gyroscope detects the angular position and converts that into a note or pitch, and the strength of the breath into the mouth piece determines the volume of the note. The instrument comes with a control unit called the blue box. A special feature called a sound card allows the musician to not only create flute music, but also other wind instruments, horns, guitar and even the piano and drums.

The Magic Flute created quite a stir in the Netherlands, especially when van der Wel's rehab center was broken into and much of his musical equipment was stolen. At the time, he only had one magic flute and had sent it back to Dillon for more revisions.

"Our therapy room had been stripped by thievery and I had gotten pretty emotional about it," said van der Wel. "Three days earlier I had sent the magic flute back to Brian, but everything else, all my Wx5's, my guitars, were gone. Well, some of the parents got really mad and started calling the television stations. The next day I was on national television and all over the newspapers talking about what happened and the Magic Flute. People wanted to hear about the kids. Seven times in two weeks I was on national television. I knew how Elvis must have felt."

The publicity surrounding the incident helped van der Wel get some sponsorship money for his musical therapy program and the Magic Flute, and much of his equipment turned up at a pawn shop and was returned to him by the police. Now, the goal is to build more Magic Flutes and sell them. The cost for each instrument, according to van der Wel, is around $2000 U.S. dollars.

"My immediate goal is to get some people to buy them so that Brian Dillon can be rewarded," said van der Wel. "He hasn't gotten any money for this, and without him the magic flute would still be just a dream for us. But my ultimate kick would be to get these instruments in rehabilitation centers all over the world, not just mine, and then eventually, because every kid deserves one, they should be in homes."

Whalen, meanwhile, is anxious to see how the magic flute will evolve into bigger and better things.

"This is just the start, and we're not leaving anybody behind," said Whalen. "If you have a disability of any kind, the point is that with the resources we have today, there might be a solution for you. New technology and computers are opening many doors for us."

Whalen knows that as well as anyone. Without the internet, he and Ruud never would have joined forces and created the magic flute. "I was sick in bed for a while, but because of the internet I could play my harmonica and make music with Ruud in Rotterdam," said Whalen. "He's really been the driving force behind this. It's amazing what he's done, and he's done it all without getting a cent."

Van der Wel, however, says he has been compensated quite nicely for his efforts.

"I wanted to make music accessible to my students," he said, "and we've done that. It's wonderful to get so much positive feedback, to see the kids get excited and to see their parents involved. It has so enriched my life, that I am very happy to do this."