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Kris Halpin: New Adventures In Sci-Fi

Kris Halpin: New Adventures In Sci-Fi

Photo Credit: Josefa Torres

It sounds like science fiction, like something out of Tony Stark’s laboratory...

In fact, one of the brains behind it is called Dr. Stark. A wearable instrument that allows gestures to become sounds, using technology that learns whatever movements the musician gives it. Reframing physical limits and disabling barriers, in a high tech, cyborg-like technology. Even the design was created with a top Hollywood costume designer. Except MiMu Gloves are real, and playing this instrument is my career. Overcoming my disabling barriers with this futuristic technology has taken me on an incredible journey. 

This instrument has really captured people’s imaginations. I've been featured playing (wearing?) this strange instrument on TV, in magazines and in concert halls all over the world. I’m often greeted with “You’re that guy with the gloves!” - it’s an instrument that gets people really excited, and my story has captured imaginations all over the world. But what is it? A video is worth a thousand words, so here it is (they are?) in action! And yes, this is really happening!

Humble Beginnings, Overcoming Barriers

As a young child, I dreamed of being a famous rock star. Nothing unusual there, but my situation was a little different. Born with Cerebral Palsy and Spina Bifida, I was severely limited in what I could do, and my parents were given a severe prognosis. None of this stopped me daydreaming about being on the big stage and having performed all over the world at such prestigious places as the Kennedy Center, Kawasaki Symphony Hall & Abbey Road Studios (to name a few), I’d say that kid got his wish..!

Being a disabled musician can be tough. So, when Dawson’s invited me to talk about the challenges and successes of my career, I was delighted. There’s a saying in the disabled community - “Nothing about us without us” - I’m immensely proud to report that Dawsons understand this idea of letting disabled people speak for themselves. And that’s why you’re learning about this journey from me! 

I started out playing guitar at an early age. I loved rock and metal, and virtuosos like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. I was in high school during the days of Britpop, and that changed the course of my playing. Suddenly guitars weren't just for soloing on - they were also songwriting tools. Sounds obvious, but I only ever thought about lead guitar. I began to sing and write songs, and people seemed to like it. 

My singer/songwriter ambitions continued into adulthood, and I was doing okay writing songs and holding down jobs waiting for the Big Break. Around 2011 Tom Robinson got behind one of my songs on BBC6Music, and things were getting interesting. This was also around the time my impairment got much worse. 

Photo Credit: Gawain Hewitt

I'd always struggled with performing. Playing local gigs always presented access barriers; my limited mobility meant I really had a hard time playing live, often struggling to access venues and stages. That was bad enough, but now things were getting worse. Perhaps through the years of pushing my hands to play guitar, my hand issues worsened. I had cramps, tightness and pain on stage. It sounds dramatic, but I was terrified. My playing was suffering, and I couldn’t just keep pushing through. After a few particularly tough gigs, I figured I was finished.

A Plea For Help

Taking to Twitter, I knew I couldn’t be the only disabled person with musical ambitions. Lots of people gave me the same reply: I needed to talk to a charity called Drake Music. Based in London, Drake Music are world leaders at making music accessible to disabled people, often through new technologies. It wasn’t long before I found myself working with Drake Music to find a solution.

At first, nothing quite clicked. My ambitions were virtuosic; as a teenager I wanted to *be* Steve Vai. The idea of launching loops via apps, whilst completely valid and empowering in many cases, wasn’t what I imagined for myself. GarageBand is amazing, but I couldn’t imagine playing “For The Love Of God” with it. 

Around this time, Drake Music were having another conversation, with the team surrounding Imogen Heap’s ground-breaking MiMu Gloves project. Imogen, an ambitious music producer herself, was facing her own barriers to live performance. Her complex electronic textures were difficult to replicate live, and Imogen wanted to really play the sounds, not just trigger playback. The audience couldn't really see how a sound was made, and as Imogen herself said, the audience was faced with watching a woman singing with a laptop. And for all they know, she could be checking her emails! After seeing data glove technology at MIT, Imogen became convinced that a gestural interface could solve the problem. 

Photo Credit: Lee Cogswell

But Drake Music saw another potential. The gloves used Machine Learning to understand and interpret the wearer's movements. The music making was led by the wearer, so even my impaired movements were completely valid. I can’t move the keys on a piano to where they’re more comfortable, but with the gloves I could put notes wherever I wanted. It was a ground-breaking concept.

Drake Music were one of 15 investors who received prototype gloves, along with several of Imogen’s biggest fans, including a woman called Ariana Grande (you may have heard of her). Drake Music proposed I experiment with the gloves, and with modest ambitions of getting a cool blog post out of it, I decided to give this strange new technology a try. And of course, the rest, is history.

Reframing Disabling Barriers

This ground-breaking concept also introduced me to a new way of thinking about being disabled. Drake Music’s work applies what is known as the Social Model of Disability, and no - I hadn’t heard of it either! This new way of thinking is a powerful tool to improving access, but to understand it requires a quick history lesson. Disability has been traditionally discussed in the Medical Model

The medical model was how I grew up understanding disability. I have something "wrong" with me, and I needed to be fixed to fit into society. That it meant surgery, and other medical interventions.

The Social model of disability is a radical departure from this idea. The social model of disability says that it is not me that is broken or needs to be fixed, but society. The social model says that it is not the responsibility of the disabled person to change, is the responsibility of society to accommodate disabled people. 

This idea can be explained very neatly with a ramp. A ramp allows a wheelchair user to access the building, and crucially it doesn't prevent anyone else from accessing the building. This very simple idea revolutionised how I think about myself, and the gloves themselves were a perfect example of the social model at work.

I couldn't change my impairment to fit an instrument, but then I couldn't, say, move the keys on a piano to suit me better either. But with the glove, the notes could be where I needed them to be. The instrument very literally fits around my impairment; I don't have to try to change. 

The gloves brought about almost overnight success. There was immediate fascination with the gloves and how I used them, and pretty soon I was on tour performing my songs in a new way.

The Phone Kept Ringing...

Photo Credit: Gawain Hewitt

What was initially planned as a week-long UK tour expanded into an 18-month world tour, with performances at such prestigious venues as Abbey Road Studios, Olympic Park and the Kennedy Center, to name a few. London, Edinburgh, Stockholm, Washington DC, Tokyo… I was playing everywhere, and my dreams were coming true. And yet, only a couple of years previously, I imagined my career was over. 

The success was exciting, but the artistic freedom was the real prize. The true goal, I believe, is that accessible technology frees the artist in such that it gets out of the way to allow expression. It wasn't long before I stopped thinking about the access barriers and focused on what the new technology allowed. I was confident using virtual instruments in the studio, but I'd always had to strip back to acoustic versions live. Now I had all my studio toys on stage, anything I could imagine, I could perform. By sending MIDI data into a DAW such as Ableton Live, I'm able to manipulate anything I choose via gesture. Air guitar, boxing drums, grabbing filters, it's all possible. I can live loop, sample, mix - everything in the box is now out of the box and on stage.

Beyond The Gloves

I love the gloves, but they're just one solution. More importantly I think is the thinking; bringing a Social Model approach to music making. With Drake Music I've worked with many young disabled people with a range of technologies, and some familiar products have had amazing results. For example, Ableton's Push is something I've used regularly in workshops - it's robust construction and bright, easily navigable interface is an amazing tool for music making where dexterity is limited. Accessible technology can be very simple too. Scott Devine of Scott's Bass Lessons has a condition called Focal Dystonia - he wears a nylon glove to calm nerve tremors caused by this neurological condition. A brilliantly simple bit of accessible tech, and at around a tenner, much cheaper than my gloves...

My story and the work of Drake Music has gathered the attention of many prominent technology brands; I'm pleased to say that making music more accessible is a goal that many people in the industry is really keen to get behind. There’s a long way to go, but I can say with a wink that I’ve seen some very encouraging signs about the future of access from some of the world’s biggest music tech brands. 

Lots of musicians will face challenges to their playing ability in their lifetime. It can be difficult to accept; I could have sought help much sooner, but I didn't want to admit that I was struggling to play. We're doing very strange things to our hands when we play; squashing and stretching our hands into unusual shapes. More accessible music technology can ultimately benefit all of us to play in healthier ways for longer, and health conditions need not be barriers to our musical ambitions.

Next time, I'll talk about how I revisited the guitar and used a radically different approach to play again

Gear featured in my music video (available from Dawsons Music)

  1. Native Instruments Komplete
  2. Ableton Live Software
  3. BOSS GT-1000 Guitar Effects Processor