I clearly recall the sunny afternoon when I was taken by Drake Music Scotland's (DMS) music technology officer, accomplished musician Rick Bamford, to their recording studio on the outskirts of Edinburgh. We were going to watch a trio: one with a fiddle, another a banjo, waiting patiently for their colleague to organise his infirm arms to connect his fingers with a keyboard. They were soon playing and within seconds my foot was tapping away. Quite incredible to witness the three keeping up with one another in an intuitively rhythmic fashion. Jamming away.
That was several years ago. Now DMS – the recipient of a Royal Conservatoire of Scotland top award for its contribution to new music – is 'going global' by launching its Figurenotes Accessible Music (FAM) resource hub. This will make its unique web-based software available to children and adults with disabilities, wherever they happen to be on the planet. DMS, whose patrons include Dame Evelyn Glennie and The Proclaimers, has received vital support and funding from ScottishPower Foundation. Such support has enabled it to update its revolutionary online musical offering, aided by help from University of Edinburgh's creative informatics challenge fund.
Figurenotes provides a method to play music using colour and shape to show rhythm and pitch intuitively. Each musical note is represented by a coloured symbol which is then matched to a sticker on the musician's instrument. This matching element means playing music is instantly accessible. Being easy to move between stages of notation enables pupils to advance at their own pace. Whether one is a music teacher running from one lesson to another, a therapist, educator or a budding musician keen to practice, the software will be available, always.
The hub is packed with dynamic learning features available on any device or screen-reader with access to the internet. The beauty of the system is the musician will be able to create, access and store their own musical scores, along with the ability to import and use existing tunes. Simply by logging into their account.
Add the fact that the musician is no longer tied to one machine – it can be used on an internet-enabled tablet for mobility – there's no need to wait for, or buy, new and updated versions. A machine or operating system is updated without losing access and files are kept online to access anywhere.
DMS chief executive, Thursa Sanderson, says: 'By simply matching colours and symbols to notes anyone can play, compose and perform. We say, if you can match you can play'.
Originally a music-learning software tool developed in Finland for people with learning disabilities, DMS has extensively developed Figurenotes and now, with such a worldwide interest, the organisation feels the timing is spot on to launch a global hub.
DMS was granted registered charity status in 1997 with support from the Leonard Cheshire Foundation, and within 15 months the number of participants increased from 15 to 250. Early recognition involved DMS featuring in 2 Days Later with Jools Holland
at The Queens Hall, Edinburgh. In 2002, DMS launched a flagship education programme Switch ON to Music
, delivering special school music education in East and South Ayrshire, East Renfrewshire, North Lanarkshire and West Lothian.
The following year The Bridges
performance project involved people with learning difficulties in a programme of music, art, film and drama, leading to a final public performance at Dunfermline's Carnegie Hall. DMS moved into its present premises at Craigmillar Social Enterprise and Cultural Centre (SPACE) in 2007. In the same year, its musician mentoring programme was recognised in a Scottish Arts Council report, A Sound Investment
, as an example of 'effective and innovative training practice'.
The Proclaimers officially opened the recording studio in 2009 funded by The People's Millions. Close collaboration with Jewel and Esk, now Edinburgh College, and involvement in writing a new national progression award in music for well-being with the Scottish Qualificatiins Authority followed. In 2013, DMS won the Music Teacher Award for Excellence for Best Special Educational Needs Resource, for its work with Figurenotes. During the following year, inclusive music specialists from Norway, South Korea, Israel and Australia beat a path to SPACE to find out more about the charity's methods and approaches.
In 2015, DMS began working with Sir James MacMillan and his Cumnock Tryst Festival, and launched Scotland's first orchestra for talented young musicians with disabilities at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Its traditional Scots music ensemble, Equilibrium, performed at Celtic Connections and Digital Orchestra performed in Singapore in front of audiences of over 10,000. Collaborations with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, Finnish organisation Resonaari and Norway's Skug followed, plus the BBC Philharmonic at MediaCityUK, Salford.
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, all group and one-to-one music tuition projects were moved online and over 180 Join In
tutorial and training resources have been staged to help children, parents and teachers continue to make music at home during lockdown. These were carried out with the mantra that everyone has the right to make music and nothing should act as a barrier. As one participant put it: 'The sessions are a lifesaver and a highlight of the week and lift my spirits very much. I am so very thankful to you Drake'.
Former Reuters, Sunday Times, The Scotsman and Glasgow Herald business and finance correspondent, Bill Magee is a columnist writing tech-based articles for Daily Business, Institute of Directors, Edinburgh Chamber and occasionally The Times' 'Thunderer'