Student makes electronic music using head and thumbs

A devastating accident left Charlotte White struggling with severe disability and lack of motivation until she found the right type of music therapy.

Image caption Charlotte now composes her own music

A teenage girl sits in a dimly-lit room wearing sunglasses playing the prelude to Bach's cello suite. A clip of this performance can be found on the internet.

There is nothing remarkable about this until you learn that she is playing every crotchet and quaver using only the slightest movements of her head and thumbs.

At the age of 11, Charlotte White suffered a blow to the head which caused her to lose all movement in her body.

She spent five years in and out of hospital and eventually went into a period of rehabilitation, regaining movement in her head and then gradually her fingers.

'Patronising' therapies

But she became very withdrawn: "All I was expected to do was get physically stronger, which wasn't happening, so that was quite depressing. I only saw people who were meant to make my life better but it never seemed to happen."

At 16, Charlotte began attending St Rose's School in Stroud and initially did not respond well to some of the activities on offer.

She said: "Music therapy is somebody sitting in front of you banging a drum or playing a guitar, and you're meant to tell them all your worries about life. It's incredibly patronising and very boring."

Then she was introduced to the Bristol-based Drake Music project, an organisation that uses technology to help people with disabilities participate in music.

There she starting working with Doug Bott and learned how to use very small head movements to break a magnetic beam, which triggers the notes.

Using thumb switches, she learned to control the configuration of notes available, much like a guitarist changes chord shapes.

Bott said Charlotte stood out from the beginning: "She was someone who was interested in classical music, which not many of the young people I was working with at the time were, somebody who was interested in working on her own and in her own way."

Eventually Charlotte took part in a concert at school.

She practised extremely hard beforehand.

"I wanted to achieve at it because it made people see me as a person, rather than as a disabled person they made presumptions about."

Striving for recognition

When Drake Music recorded her performing a Bach cello suite and posted it on the internet, it generated a lot of interest across the musical community, challenging the assumptions about what was possible using assistive technology.

But this raised questions about whether music made in this way should be entered for the same musical examinations as mainstream students using conventional instruments.

"I wanted to pursue music at college," said Charlotte, "but establishments who grade musicians wouldn't recognise it and therefore I couldn't progress."

The music examining boards do not accredit music performed electronically, but they are working with Drake Music to find ways of developing this area.

For Doug Bott, it is early days. "We're discussing ways of accrediting the quality of the music performance in a way that it's not linked to the particular instrument a person is playing," he said.

And although Charlotte was not able to take the conventional instrumental exams, she did receive a Bronze Arts Award from Trinity College London.

Her work has also received some international recognition.

When news of her performing and composing achievements reached the organisers of a festival in Norway, they asked her to compose some music for the Northern Lights Music Festival in Tromso.

Charlotte has chosen to pursue her academic studies and gained a place at university, studying social policy and criminology.

This is an incredible feat of will and determination for someone who had been largely written off by mainstream society, and music was key to Charlotte's rehabilitation.

She said: "Music inspired me in the belief that I could achieve anything.

"I became more enthusiastic and had much more of a drive, and wanted to break the barriers and do the same things as everyone else, rather than just being bracketed as a disabled person.

"I started to enjoy life and experience things that the average teenager does."

Charlotte White's Musical Fight will be broadcast on Sunday 27 March at 1330 BST on BBC Radio 4 and will also be available on the BBC iPlayer.

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