Playing an instrument can have incredible benefits for people with disabilities. The repetition and memorization required to play an instrument stimulate learning. It helps people to improve their focus and calms their anxieties. It also provides them with an important emotional and creative outlet while putting them on an equal social footing with people who may not live with the same struggles.
The problem is that some people with disabilities that affect their limbs and coordination aren’t physically able to play an instrument. But all of that is changing due to the work of a Greek professor, Dr. Zacharias Vamvakousis.
In 2008, a musician friend of Vamvakousis got into a serious motorcycle accident that threatened his ability to play the guitar.
This inspired the professor to look for ways to combine his computer science skills with his passion for music. “I realized that the technology was there, but that nobody had done anything about it,” he said according to Christian Science Monitor.
It led to Vamvakousis developing the EyeHarp for his final project for the master’s degree in music technology he was pursuing in Barcelona. He then pursued and earned a Ph.D. in digital musical instruments for people with disabilities.
The EyeHarp is a gaze-activated instrument that can be played by simply moving one's eyes. According to its website, it offers the “same expressive qualities as any traditional instrument.”
Musicians can play the EyeHarp by downloading and installing the software and using the program with an eye-tracker camera. Notes appear on the screen in a color-coded wheel that can be played by moving one’s eyes.
Players are given the option to choose whether to use a pentatonic or heptatonic scale and can practice with or without rhythm. The app has a gamification mode where players can test their skills and be scored on their accuracy.
The EyeHarp has made music accessible to people with cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and amputations. It can also be played by people with intellectual disabilities.
Currently, there are around 650 EyeHarp players in the world. One of its most enthusiastic supporters is 14-year-old Joel Bueno, who says that the instrument brings him joy and allows him to express his emotions with others.
“The way Joel plays this instrument and flourishes is mind-blowing,” Tamar Zamora, a musician who was accompanied by Bueno said. “Seeing him enjoy himself and brimming with happiness on the chair is extraordinary.”
Bueno’s mother, Laura Bueno, believes that the instrument has opened a world of possibilities for her son.
“We knew certain activities like playing soccer or music would be impossible for Joel,” Laura said. “When EyeHarp appeared, we felt, my God, if we can do this we can do anything.”
Although Vamvakousis has already allowed hundreds of people to experience playing music who wouldn’t have otherwise, there is still a lot more work to be done. In 2019, he created the EyeHarp Association, a nonprofit that’s goal is to further develop the instrument and have it available to as many people as possible for the lowest piece.
“I wanted to make all this available to anyone,” Vamvakousis said.
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