The following is an interview with electronic production and design professor Richard Boulanger, who will be presenting at the Music Therapy Department’s symposium, Music and Science: Practice and Convergence, on April 12. Music therapy student Melanie Cuevas conducted the interview. Boulanger, a computer music/computer-based alternate music controller pioneer, and CSounds author, will discuss the convergence of music and emerging technologies, and present a debut performance of music with “hyperinstruments.”

For several years now, I have been collaborating with faculty in the Music Therapy Department at Berklee and developing custom software and hardware systems with them and for them. I have been watching as they have worked these programs and systems into their research, their teaching, and their clinical practice.  Specifically, I have done projects with Dr. Suzanne Hanser, Dr. Peggy Codding, professors Karen Wacks, Donna Chadwick, Julie Zigo, and Chi Kim.  As you might well imagine, each of them serves a different population, and their work has a unique and specialized focus.

Some of this software has involved sensors and data acquisition, and this has needed to be both accurate, and informative. In these cases visual and audio monitoring, graphical displays, charts and data representations and manipulation tools have been key. In other cases, we have attempted to make systems that allowed children with limited mobility to “play” music and have “fun” playing together. We have built biofeedback systems, and we have developed systems to musically and spiritually enrich and support families and individuals at the end of life. In every case, I have tried to design systems that are simple to set up and use, that are intuitive, and self-explanatory.  It can’t be “intrusive.” It can’t get in the way of the communication and connection between the therapist and their patient.

It has to just be there, at arms reach; and it has to just work—like a guitar or a drum just work.

This was not my first idea.  Originally I just thought I could design and build things that were cool, impressive, fascinating, musical, and “intelligent”—I built smart music machines.  But as I worked with the faculty and watched them in the classroom and in the clinic, I became aware of the “real” needs and the “realities” that they face and work with every day.

I have a new mantra now:  simple, portable, self-contained, intuitive, adaptive, scalable, invisible.

Before developing a system today, I ask: Who is the therapist and how do they work? What do they use today to do what they do?  Who are the patients?  How do they interact with them? What do they do and like to do? How do they currently interact with and use technology in the course of their day?  What do they do with the music therapist and how do they work and play together? What group activities are involved and how are “instruments” used in the group?

I am still trying to build “smart” new instruments, but their design and utility is now the result of watching how therapists work with their patients and in their classes.  The answers to my questions are found by observing and then designing.

Can something that is very specifically designed for one person; for one class; for one therapist; can something so custom also be of use generally?  I do think so; but the design has to begin with a very specific person in mind and to solve a very specific need or set of needs.

Is the music therapy experience different when using electronic/MIDI (iPad, etc.) instruments vs. real instruments?

When I would follow professor Julie Zigo to the Kennedy School, and watch her work there with a guitar, a piano, and some hand drums, I was so inspired by how incredibly versatile she was, and how connected she was with each of the students.  How the music connected them. She was fast and flexible. She could just segue into a new song or adapt the one she was writing with the students to go with their interests.  On the next beat she was changing it up to involve more and more of the kids. To see how quickly and seamlessly everything could happen.  How quickly it needed to happen. Instantly I was confronted by the challenge to make a software system that could work that intuitively as she had been working with her voice, her guitar, the piano, and the drum. There was no setup time. There was no “re-boot.”  There was no “acquiring the WIFI network” time. That would all need to just work.

It was gratifying to see professor Zigo work one of my iPad apps into clinical practice.  Admittedly, I was happy to be there for “tech support” should anything go wrong. The students seemed to really enjoy making music with the software and it was great to see how excited that they were, but also how excited professor Zigo and some of her assistant were. It seems that one of the students, who was extremely shy and had very limited mobility, was so excited by the app that he was joining in, reaching out, and moving more than he had done in weeks.

So, there is definitely something here in these intelligent, adaptive, musical “instruments” based on sensors, and iPads, and other wireless technologies; but they need to be more robustly developed and more rigorously tested. My app did a couple of things and played a couple of songs. Honestly, it might hold the attention of one student for about 10 minutes. There would need to be so much more added to give this program/instrument the scope and versatility of professor Zigo’s guitar.

What are the criteria to use for incorporating technology in music therapy with different clinical populations?

There are practical technical needs—wireless, portable, interconnected, networked.

There are practical clinical needs—durable, sanitary, affordable, and easily replaceable.

The therapist needs to “know” this “instrument”—how to work it, launch it, run it, stop it, reset it, restore it, find it, update it, and make music with it.

Therapists, like professor Zigo, have had many years of working with traditional instruments, with their voice, and with their patients. I don’t think that it will take so many years to integrate new technological instruments into her practice, but I do think that if she or anyone plans to use technology of any sort, they really need to learn to “play” it to that same degree that the “instrument,” in this case the “technology” does not stand between the therapist and the patient, but is a new means to connect them to one another.

Lesley Mahoney
Latest posts by Lesley Mahoney (see all)