Music, OHMI, Education

On the other musical hand

All standard musical instruments require ten active fingers to be able to play them and up to 30,000 children in UK schools are deprived access to music-making as a result. But OHMI is opening up musical expression to them, Simon Tait reports

Today the One Handed Musical Instrument Trust (OHMI) will choose the winner of this year’s annual competition for a new instrument that can be played with one hand. The first winner was a toggle-key saxophone, and last year it was won by a a one-handed clarinet.

Dr Stephen Hetherington

“When we founded OHMI in 2011 there were no instruments for one-handed children in the system at all” said Stephen Hetherington, the charity’s founder. “There are now, partly thanks to the competition – flutes, clarinets, trumpets, pretty much the whole brass section can now be made one-handed.”

The winner will be announced at the trust’s annual conference in September at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire with delegates from all over the world. 


One-handed bagpipe

OHMI began with Hetherington’s teenage daughter, Amy, who has cerebral palsy and is hemiplegic with no full control of one side of her body. She desperately wanted to play the trumpet but had to abandon her dream. “There is no knowing how good she would have been” he father says, “but she never had the chance to find out”. Now 25 she has qualified as an archaeologist, working for the Museum of London, and is now studying for a second MA, in journalism.

It has been frustrating for Amy. "If I'm holding it with one hand it means I don't have the full dexterity of my right hand in order to move the valves and press them as quickly as I'd like” she says. "I can't tune the trumpet at all and that does cause problems. I'm almost able to play it but not quite". Now, a stand has been developed that would allow Amy to play, holding the instrument and allowing the necessary mouth pressure.

The Department for Education says that all children should have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument, as set out in the National Plan for Education.“We are investing nearly £500m in music and arts education programmes between 2016 and 2020” a spokeswoman said. “This includes £300m for a network of music education hubs, whose responsibilities include ensuring that every child aged between five and 18 has the opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument through whole-class ensemble teaching.”

Dr David Nabb with his one-handed saxophone

But when OHMI asked for details of how many of the 30,000 disabled schoolchildren in the system had benefitted, it transpired that just 17 had.

“Over the last ten years there has been a recognition that the world doesn’t give sufficient ‘access’ to people who do not have the complete set of physical and mental capabilities” Hetherington says. “It runs through sport, the building industry, the transport system, pretty much everywhere – but not through music.”

Dr Stephen Hetherington was an orchestral musician before moving on the produce theatre, opera, ballet and orchestras across the world, and was awarded the MBE last year for services to music and theatre.

He believes the schools minister Nick Gibb understands the problem, but it is one that falls between funding pools. Because OHMI does not produce performances it cannot qualify for Arts Council national portflio funding, and while the education department has created music hubs around the country to serve schools, the funding is tight and the cost of researching and purchasing adapted instruments would be too much.

So OHMI has had to take it on, funded by charitable trusts and individual donors, commissioning research as well as organising the competition, and universities are interested in its work. “The string family is the most difficult challenge” Hetherington says, “but we have a research project with Queen Mary University of London in which two PhD students are working on the two aspects of the violin, fingerboards and bowing, aimed at producing one-handed instruments”

The Petry sisters

Performing at the September conference will the remarkable Petry sisters, Inga and Elena, two teenagers both born without arms who play cellos with their feet with such virtuosity that by hearing alone one cannot tell the difference between their performances and normal playing. But their instruments are normal cellos: the research is finding a way of operating both fingerboard and bow – “how do you get expression into the instrument through the fingers of only one hand?” Hetherington asks.

The answer may be in the solution for the saxophone, the “toggle key”, invented by music academic David Nabb, who lost the use of his left arm through a stroke, to win the first prize in 2013, which has three positions for each key.

OHMI is collaborating with other organisations, such as OpenUp Music, winner of a Royal Philharmonic Society award for Learning and Participation) for its work with young disabled people, many of whom have very complex needs.

“There is potential for high performance using these instruments” Hetherington says, “but if we can provide instruments that in themselves give the children full participation at any level they wish to play, job well done.”

OHMI’s 2018 conference, Music & Physical Disability rom instrument to performance, is at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire on September 7 and 8

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