Fire Prairie Upper Elementary fifth grader Emily Allen sits in her motorized wheelchair and she slightly leans forward and blows into the mouthpiece of her instrument, which is held up by a tripod.
It creates a synthesized sound of a clarinet, as she moves her head slightly up and down depending on what note she’s playing.
She has a musical stand in front of her. On the left side is her sheet of music. To the right of that is a control module with an integrated display that shows her which note she’s playing.
The device, which can produce sounds of multiple types of instruments, is Allen’s Magic Flute. It’s can be played without the use of hands. It allows Allen to join her classmates in the school band as she’s not able to play a traditional clarinet. That’s because she has arthrogryposis, a condition she was born with that causes her to have joint contractures, meaning she has a limited range of motion with parts of her body.
Allen is able to be in the school band and was able to play in the school’s Winter Concert Series last December. It’s all thanks to the Magical Flute, which was invented by a trio of people – David Whalen, Brian Dillon and Ruud van der Wel. They are part of a company called My Breath My Music, which designs instruments for those with disabilities.
“ … the designer, Ruud, when he was interested in learning about Emily, mentioned that she was the only one playing this in the United States in a band setting,” longtime Fire Prairie band director Don Long said.
The Magic Flute is set to make the sound of a clarinet. It allows Allen to play music with only slight movements of the head and allows her to read music in the same key as the clarinets. It’s rotated up and down to change the pitch and the strength of her breath controls the volume.
“It sounds similar to a regular clarinet,” Long said. “It can sound like a saxophone, a clarinet, a percussion or any other instrument. There are a lot of neat settings we haven’t explored because she wanted to play the clarinet.
“When she blows into it, the key whether it’s C, D, E, or F, changes based on the direction she tilts her head. When there needs to be a sharp or a flat, she has to use the switch to change it to that pitch. She has to use musical thinking. This wouldn’t work if she wasn’t a real smart girl.”
Allen had been interested in joining the band when she went to Indian Trails Elementary School, and she met with the band staff and expressed interest in the clarinet. Her cousins played in a band, which made her want to join one.
“My older cousin plays the clarinet, too,” she said.
But they had to find a way to do it since she couldn’t play a traditional one.
Long did some research for students with disabilities playing musical instruments. That’s when he discovered the Magic Flute.
He contacted Cecelia Coppenbarger, one of Fort Osage’s process coordinators. She worked with the office of student services and applied for a grant through Missouri Assistive Technology, whose mission is to increase access to assistive technology for those in Missouri with all types of disabilities for all ages.
The Magic Flute cost more than a traditional instrument, around $2,000, according to Coppenbarger. The grant was approved, and Allen started playing in the band last summer.
“I wasn’t sure it was going to work, but I took the information that Mr. Long had, and shared it with (Missouri Assistive Technology),” Coppenbarger said. “We have to write up information about how her disability affects her functioning – like can she blow wind of her lungs long enough and things like that, so this device would work.
“We actually got the last one in stock (on mybreathmymusic.com), and I was like, ‘Thank goodness.’ We just got the funding in the nick of time.”
Abby Hall, a paraprofessional at Fire Prairie, assists Allen with using the Magic Flute, assembling and disassembling it for each rehearsal and concert. Hall also helps Allen make alterations to the written music to allow her to hit various keys required by the band.
“Abby used to play in the band here, so when she was paired up with Emily, that was perfect,” Long said. “Abby knows the ins and outs of music and is tech savvy.”
Ruud has also assisted with the process by making videos to show Hall and Long how to adjust the setting on the Magic Flute when needed. Allen has a duffel bag for it, and takes it home to practice, as well.
It’s an activity Allen wants to continue through high school, as she is still learning the fundamentals of making music during her second semester in band.
“Everyone worked to make sure this could happen for Emily, including her parents,” Long said. “It’s a great experience for me as a band director to have a student playing a unique instrument and participating fully.
“It’s a message to any student with a disability that there is a way to get in there and participate in all kinds of activities.”
Added Coppenbarger: “For Emily to stick with it, and fight through all these challenges to do something like this is great.”