Theremin Bollards open up world of music for all

The Theremin Bollards in action

David Young designed the Theramin Bollards

First published in Features
Last updated

When a young Leon Theremin invented a unique instrument to detect runaway prisoners during the height of the Russian Civil War, little did he know that almost a century later it would be the source of a medical breakthrough.

A lot has changed since the Soviet designed device first surfaced in the war-torn country, producing a sound which later captivated audiences when it was altered and played in America by its inventor during the late 1920s.

Science, technology and music have all taken leaps forward since then, and the alien structure, which is controlled without physical contact, and only makes a sound when a person's magnetic energy breaks into its field, has been given a 21st Century twist by a York musician.

While the principle of David Young's Theremin Bollards draws parallels to its Russian counterpart, advances in digital technology have given the York St John Music Technology lecturer the chance to help those born without the ability to be the next Noel Gallagher or Alicia Keys create music.

When children and adults with autism or Down's Syndrome come into contact with Mr Young's adaptation, which can be programmed to produce the sound of any instrument as people move around them, they too can play music.

And it is the feeling this produces - known in medical circles as the Pivotal Moment - that can provide an empathetic connection between the therapist and patient - a feeling those born with the illness rarely experience.

"The idea of this was to take away the skill needed for music making," said Mr Young, who says he has seen children experience the Pivotal Moment by using Theremin Bollards.

"To play an instrument you need to practice, and you need skill.

"Some of the skills you get from music making are confidence, empathy, listening, and the opportunity to be creative, which are what we call the soft skills of music making.

"And they are, in my opinion and many others', regarded as essential skills in music making.

"It's not that I am in anyway trying to suggest we disregard or do away with the need for skills or practice because as a musician myself I see the need, but if you have a physical disability you may not have the motor neurone skills to play an instrument.

"Does that mean then, that someone in that position shouldn't have the opportunity to play music?

"Well, I think not, because this is a great tool for music therapy because people who do have disabilities, emotional problems, or someone who has had a stroke can use this for its therapeutic benefits."

The relationship between disabled people and Theremin Bollards is now allowing researchers to understand how the conditions effect the mind, and professors at Cambridge University are eager to get their hands on them.

Mr Young, a 45-year-old father of two from Tang Hall, has been interested in music since the age of four when he first picked up the trombone his father played in a military band.

He says he knew he could design the instrument - a free standing structure which takes the shape of its name - when he plugged an electric guitar into one during his A-Level studies as a mature student in 2001.

But it was the experience of his daughter, Jessica, who suffers from cerebral palsy and plays the drums, that really inspired him to build his version of the instrument.

He said: "My daughter's illness had a big impact on me and changed my life.

"When you have a disabled child, both you and them don't generally have a great deal of peers.

"It's the same in bringing up any child because there's no rule book for it, but for Jess herself there was no-one for her to be inspired by because she didn't find any disabled drummers, but seeing her do it and breaking through the barriers in front of here showed music has an amazing therapeutic power that sometimes we don't fully recognise.

"The reason she wanted to play drums was because she wanted to play the music she was hearing and break through her difficulties to do that.

"Green Day (the band) inspired her to do that and that was fantastic. It was a win win situation for us because she could play and exercise."

As well as sending out an important message about their ability to breakdown barriers, Mr Young is determined for them to be used to encourage fun and has been asked to install them at a museum in New York, banks in Madrid and shopping centres in Hong Kong over Christmas, but limited funding for the project mean the opportunities cannot be grasped with both hands just yet.

Last month, his team spent time in the Natural History Museum in London as part of Universities Week, and set up the equipment around the museum's prize T-Rex skeleton in the main hall.

"We were the only group there that was able to install next to the dinosaur, and that's something I will never forget," he added.

"For a York artist to have their work in such a recognisable venue in London was very flattering, and it went down really well.

"We felt we justified the request."

Theremin Bollards can next be seen in the county at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in Wakefield, when dance groups will perform alongside them from August 1 to 3.

For anyone who would like to find out more about the invention visit www.thereminbollards.co.uk

And for information about the forthcoming presentation at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, visit www.ysp.co.uk/whats-on

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