The importance of a one-handed saxophone

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Media captionNeill Duncan says his modified instrument gave him his life back

As this year's top instrument for one-handed musicians is announced, we look at what's out there if you're unable to make music by traditional means.

One-handed saxophones

The winner of the annual One Handed Musical Instrument Competition (OHMI) was announced at midnight. Designed to be performed at virtuoso level, the tenor and soprano saxophones developed by Maarten Visser won for 2016.

Neill Duncan, a musician from Australia, plays what he calls these "beautiful pieces of machinery" to appreciative audiences mainly in his home country. A professional saxophonist for 30 years, he had his left arm amputated three years ago to halt a particularly aggressive form of cancer.

"I remember playing the last note and thinking 'that's it, that's the end of my music'," he says.

Image caption Neill's saxophone is modified for one hand

But after the surgery, a friend told him about a one-handed saxophone which uses "tri-keys" which enable each key to play three notes. By pivoting on your finger, you can achieve all the notes a two-handed player can play on a regular sax.

"I'll play a gig and people don't know that I only have one arm," he says. "It's given me my music back, it's given me my passion back, it's given me my job back."

The competition was developed by Stephen Hetherington, whose daughter only had the use of one hand, and was told she couldn't play anything. The event has proved otherwise. The winner of the first of the competitions in 2013 was an adapted alto-saxophone.

This sax is played professionally by David Nabb, professor of saxophone at the University of Nebraska. Nabb thought his career was over aged 37 when "without any warning" he had a stroke paralysing his left side which he describes as "devastating".

Image caption David Nabb uses a modified sax

Nabb says "[I] didn't think an instrument like this was possible" but his friend, and instrument maker Jeff Stelling, took up the challenge of stripping back a conventional saxophone and re-building it with a one-handed mechanism.

"It turned out to be an extremely successful project," he says.

The saxophone works on a toggle system so he can slide his fingers across a metal bar to play different notes.

"I've had to develop new techniques and approaches to old repertoire, but every year I'm doing things that I never thought possible," he says.

Image caption David's saxophone works on a toggle system

Rachel Wolffsohn from OHMI says although there's an annual winner the real benefit is bringing "learned wisdom into the public domain", although the rarity of the instruments currently makes them prohibitively expensive.

"The sax which won in 2013 is about £20,000 and it takes a year for the guy to make it," she says. "Even if I had £20,000 I couldn't get one because there's a long list [of people waiting]."

In an attempt to solve the problem of cost and availability, OHMI is working with Birmingham City University to see if 3D printing will enable them to produce these unique instruments in greater quantities.

"We're trying to give people with disabilities the opportunities to play in the top flight orchestras," she says.

The Kellycaster

Image copyright 2015 Emile Holba
Image caption The Kellycaster was design for and named after musician John Kelly pictured on the left

The traditional guitar requires two-hands to play, but a new guitar is about to break onto the scene - the Kellycaster - which can be played with a single finger.

Conceived by John Kelly, a musician and activist who is unable to use his left hand, the charity Drake Music has developed an instrument which uses real guitar strings linked to a computer.

"The idea was to combine a computer interface with all the subtleties of the instrument," Gawain Hewitt of Drake Music says. "It won't have anything to do with traditional guitar playing, but it will sound like a guitar."

Image copyright 2015 Emile Holba

The Kellycaster features a standard guitar body linked to a computer. The musician presses buttons which he or she has previously programmed with the chords and notes it wants to hear. Through a combination of pressing buttons and strumming, the computer measures the intensity of the string vibrations and is able to produce a realistic sound - with all the "feeling" coming from the musician.

But the traditional shape of the instrument may be tweaked. "Although we like the shape of the traditional guitar," says Hewitt, "they present access issues and they're also quite heavy. There's no need for a guitar to be guitar-shaped, all we need is six strings that can be strummed."

The cost currently stands at £10,000, but Hewitt says the charity hopes to create a publicly available blueprint to enable other people to build and adapt it. "I anticipate that it will have a very profound impact in terms of inspiring disabled people to be musicians, and the ambition would be that the computer would sit within the guitar body, rather than connected to it."


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Media captionThe Mi.Mu gloves contain sensors that recognise hand movements

Mi.Mu Gloves are one of the most futuristic electronic instruments.

Worn over the hands, a series of sensors connected to a computer pick up your movements and turn every hand-sweep or finger-point into sounds.

A tuba or cello, for instance, can be generated by a pre-programmed gesture.

A fist could be your personal cue for a flute, while sweeping it upwards could give you different notes on its scale. Bowing your hand across your body could introduce a violin and a series of movements could create an entire band.

Professional musician Kris Halpin turned to the gloves after his cerebral palsy made it difficult to continue playing the piano and guitar.

Image copyright Kris Halpin
Image caption It might look like a funky dance move, but Kris Halpin is actually making music with his hands

"Within minutes of putting the gloves on, the light bulb above my head went off and, in terms of accessible music, the leap forward was absolutely revolutionary," he says. "They allow for virtuosity, and in the best possible way, demand practice, skill and musical vision. A novice could put them on and make some sounds, but for me they can be pretty complex."

Developed by composer Imogen Heap, Halpin recently toured Berlin using the £5,000 gloves.

"To me stepping on stage without the guitar felt really crazy, but to the audience it appears that I can pluck the notes out of the air as though I can see the sounds.

"I can play the drums and guitar and layer it all up to play all my acoustic songs again."


Image copyright Music Bricks/Human Instruments
Image caption Clarence Adoo uses a headset to direct a cursor on a computer so he can select the instruments and notes he wants to play

Former trumpeter Clarence Adoo adored his music, playing alongside musicians including Courtney Pine. But a car crash in 1995 left him paralysed from the neck down ending his career overnight.

Now, 3 June will see him debut his newest electronic instrument, the Hi-Note.

Linked to a headset, Adoo selects his sound using a cursor on a computer. Then he blows into a tube to start the note as well as adding expressive techniques such as vibrato and can create combinations too.

"You can play and have one sound, but the more air you blow you can have other instruments joining, so you could start with a trumpet and bring in a cello."

Adoo says it's a "work in progress" and it took him a while to recognise its potential.

Image copyright Music Bricks/Human Instruments
Image caption Clarence Adoo blows into a tube to activate the Hi-Note, the harder he blows, the more instruments he can 'play'

"For a long time, when I started looking at this technology, I thought 'why can't I do what I used to play on trumpet?' Then I realised that all the instruments in the orchestra are different anyway so I have to appreciate what it can give me.

"Being electronic there's a lot of new worldly sounds, so it can add a lot to conventional instruments and be very creative."

Adoo still teaches and has started playing the Hi-Note alongside his students.

"I went to Guildhall [School of Music] and played with the jazz students and they were blown away because they didn't know how to improvise with me at first, but when they trusted it, it sounded really good and they said 'we must do a tour'. That reassures me that it's got a lot of potential and maybe even the jazz world can move on with it.

"Conventional musicians, which I was, might have some criticism about electronic music, but when Bach started introducing the organ I'm sure there was some controversy then."

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