Andrea testing out the Virtual Music Instrument

Turning movement into music

Andrea Lamont believes music is for everyone. 

Over the past 20 years as a music therapist and coordinator at Holland Bloorview, Andrea has seen first-hand the positive impact the hospital’s donor-funded music therapy programs have had on hundreds of her students’ health journeys.

Not only do her students participate in playing along, they also build a sense of community.

“At first, in a group, a student might want to reach out and touch the guitar,” she says.

“What we find by the end, they're not only reaching out and participating on the guitar, they're looking at their friend and they're having fun with their friend, while strumming the guitar.”

But for some of her students, playing traditional instruments, like a guitar, isn’t always an option.

“What we find is in children with who may be limited in their movement, there may be a sense of reaching out or trying to grab and to explore, but it's difficult,” she says. “So we wanted to create an instrument that allows the child to be successful from the start, that was non-invasive, and that didn't require strength or the ability to grab.”

That’s why Andrea, along with a team led by Dr. Tom Chau through the Bloorview Research Institute, created the Virtual Music Instrument (VMI), a tool meant to create music through movement.

The VMI is an adaptable and accessible interface that makes music and sound, by using a combination of a webcam, a monitor, and virtual on-screen images. The interface works by emitting a sound effect or musical note when a shape on-screen is “touched” by a student’s movements.

Whether it’s with a blink of an eye, a finger wiggle, a shoulder shrug, or a head bob, the program allows students with any ability to express themselves.

“I zoom the camera on the part of their body they’ll be using. Then the computer is basically mapping out the child's image and when the child moves through that particular shape, it fires off a signal to say, now play that sound on that instrument,” she says.

“So, children are able to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star just like anyone else in their class.”

From diamonds, stars, or squares to colours across the spectrum, clients are given full control over their musical experience. Similarly some themes of the program allow students to activate sound effects, like Star Wars or birds.

“I have lots of kids, who have been here, when I first talked to them about who they are and why they're here, they might tell me they have a disability,” she says.

“What I love is by the time we're finished, they're saying ‘I'm a musician.’”

And because of the positive impact on so many students' lives, in 2017, the team behind the VMI was awarded with one of Canada's highest honours: the Governor General's Meritorious Service Cross.