In 2019, as part of This is Derby, we worked with Royal School for the Deaf Derby.  The project was led by music leader Jack Ross, with cellist Deirdre Bencsik, double bassist Dave Ayre, violist Janina Kopinska, BSL interpreter Sarah Gatford and Marianne Barraclough.


During the project we worked with a group of 18 young people aged between 5 and 11 from RSDD to make a new song with an instrumental section, as well as learning some songs which they later performed with young people from across Derby.  During the creative sessions we used many different starting points and approaches to music making with the young people, including graphic scores, being hands on with the instruments, using colour and lots of physical movements, making table scores, using visual cues, and feeling vibrations using balloons.


Whilst working at RSDD we discovered that they were part of a research project with the University of Liverpool and their Musical Vibrations team.  You can read more about their research here  Broadly speaking the vibrotactile technology that they use “converts musical sounds that can be heard, into musical vibrations which are felt through the skin as vibrotactile feedback.  It is an assistive technology which has been described as a form of “hearing through the skin”.  Following discussions with the researcher and the school, we were able to loan one vibrotactile shaker for our remaining sessions, which immediately opened up new possibilities in our sessions. 


However, the numbers of young people we were working with, and therefore their individual proximity to the shaker, remained a huge challenge.  Jack and Marianne began testing out potential modifications which would allow us to share the vibrations amongst the whole group of 18 young people.  We considered some different options, before finally agreeing on three carpet tubes, and three buckets, with an all important piece of wood, which if taped together onto the shaker, would, we hoped, extend the vibrations all along the carpet tubes and into the buckets, enabling the whole group to be able to feel the vibrations and sing / play at the same time.


The next session, we arrived early to get it all set up and to test it out before the young people arrived, and to our absolute delight it worked!  The look on the faces of the young people as they realised they could now all feel the music that Dave, Deirdre and Janina were playing at the same time, was incredible.  The vibrations weren’t as defined as if you were an individual using the shaker, but we were able to share the vibration so a whole group could play together with a shared sense of pulse.  It dramatically improved the group work and our musical making reached another level.


We continued to use the vibrotactile equipment in our sessions in school, and during the final performance.  For the performance, we were able to use all 8 vibrotactile shakers, the whole orchestra had microphones, and the feeds were sent to the vibrotactile shakers, so as well as using the vibrotactile shakers to help making music together, they were also used to help the young people appreciate music Sinfonia Viva and the other groups performed.


We are really interested in working further with the University of Liverpool to see how we can further develop our use of the vibrotactile equipment to make our performances and workshops more positive, dynamic and accessible for our Deaf community.