Dhpraxis2, Project Proposal, Felicity Howlett
The Sounds of Music project is a plan for an interactive music program designed to encourage participation, awaken memories, and foster well-being in a home-bound, fragile elderly population. Its focus is on people who, for one reason or another, have been isolated in their living quarters, unable to participate in activities outside their home. Ease of access is a crucial concern. The program operates from a WordPress website platform embedded with Zoom, a video communications application that enables interactive communication and screen sharing. The challenge to the project is to design a platform where people may enjoy a congenial social experience through singing (or other music making), listening, and discussion. At present, technical limitations in audio transfer prevent successful ensemble participation from people in different locations. Specifically, these are problems of synchronicity due to latency (time lag) issues. Sounds of Music offers a working model that can be put into effect immediately, with the flexibility of incorporating improvements in audio interactivity as they become available. This proposal invites the participation of the digital humanities community as its role expands from the academy into the broader public sphere. It encourages creative input and program design to ensure comfortable access to people who have previously may have been excluded from opportunities for social participation.
Problems to Address
On March 11, 2020, when the WHO declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, the abrupt termination of in-person, interpersonal communication upended traditional practices in classrooms, office buildings, service industries, performing arts, social programs, and more. Those suddenly confined to their living quarters found themselves in situations not so far removed from an established group of outliers—the approximately ten percent of the United States population over sixty-five years of age “who are considered housebound and in need of home-based care” (Qiu et al. 2010). Overnight, traditional in-person activities became on-line encounters, and people began to appreciate what extraordinary opportunities were possible in an online format. What this means for us is that suddenly an overlooked population can participate with the same equipment that everyone else is using. Suddenly people who cannot leave home do not have to be left out. It is hoped that this project can support this participation through the creative planning and structure of an accessible program that invites participation, encourages discussion, listening, and music making. Creative applications of available material and perhaps new inventions will be required to assist participants to enjoy the greatest accessibility.
The intended audience includes people who have missed out on face-to-face encounters because of their inability to leave their living quarters, and the intention of the project is to address that issue by creating an inclusive, participatory and comfortable forum focusing on music. We may receive assistance in establishing an audience for a pilot project from Concetta Tomaino, a CUNY instructor, and executive director of The Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, for whom I have been a volunteer piano player for the past three years in both in-house and online music therapy sessions. While this project is not intended to be a therapy program, she has considerable experience in this area and may be especially helpful when considering how best to accommodate certain handicaps as well as in our outreach activities.
Contribution to DH and Potential Impact
With “Sounds of Music” students of the digital humanities have an opportunity to “engage the world beyond the academy” (Gold and Klein, 2019) by offering an overlooked and underserved population access to internet communication and participation in a humanities-based online program. The project also inspires innovative thinking and opportunities to propose and invent creative tools to support those who have difficulty gaining access to digital portals without assistance. For participants, a program that shines light on musical highlights from past years provides a background for the discovery of threads from previous life experiences and the opportunity to tie them into the present fabric of their lives. Enabling a group to share space and time on topics of mutual musical interest can be particularly fulfilling.
Through the program format, the goal is to break down distinctions among participants and to create a participatory, informative, and engaging musical program available to anyone who would like to use it but with a special focus on making it accessible to people unable to attend in-person events. A primary objective is to provide a way for people who are confined to their living quarters to enjoy music, musical participation and social communication as adults. At the same time, it is hoped that the final product will serve to open gates that sometimes separate the worlds within and without the university. In the future, the flexible design intended for Sounds of Music might be adapted to a variety of projects, for example, programs coordinating with people experiencing a single cognitive or physical condition or a musical/educational format for children.
Information about the program will be disseminated through appropriate internet links, key words, by notifying local information sites, community organizations, and municipal programs who share such information, with libraries, medical facilities and rehab operations as well. The program may even be of interest to insurance companies and other entities who are interested in seeking ways to enhance quality of life for their clients.
Initial Feasibility Assessment
A number of successful online music programs exist although none was found was exactly this focus. Two particularly successful examples are:
Daniel’s Music Foundation. https://www.danielsmusic.org/virtualcommunity
New York City, NY
A thriving music center in New York City offers musical activities and lessons for individuals with handicaps from age three through adult. It shifted to an online presence almost immediately in March 2020, thanks to excellent music studios. No one anticipated the power and value of their online presence. Enrollment has increased significantly since going virtual.
The Sofa Singers thesofasingers.com
North Wales, UK
People from all over the world join in real time for 45 minutes of simultaneous singing twice a week on Zoom for a small participation fee. The latency problem is successfully circumvented with an upfront explanation: “The Sofa Singers encourages you to sing as if no-one is listening because they won’t be. Due to latency (delay) it is not possible to synchronise and hear all of the singers at the same time. But you will be able to see each other so sing with a smile.” Afterwards, there’s a break with group discussion.
Our proposal takes advantage of the practical and efficient advice shared by James Sills of The Sofa Singers. Until a better alternative comes along, when participatory singing occurs, singers will hear only the musical output from the moderator and their own voice. At other times, channels will open so that people can enjoy communicating with one another.
Special Applications and Equipment to Enhance Autonomy
Virtual assistants such as Siri and Alexa have transformed the accessible landscape, and they are getting more capable by the moment. They can turn equipment on and off, set alarms and reminders, and produce programs on demand. Except for the advantages of having a physical presence available, these assistants can perform many tasks that were impossible to manage without assistance for many people not so long ago. Recently new devices attached to these virtual assistants have the capacity to use video and to keep the viewer positioned properly in the video frame. New advances have been made in earphones and watches, and other, older enhancements such as headphones and audio enhancers should not be overlooked.
Continual attention is required to improvements in this areas as well as to the synchronicity problem. These areas may inspire digital humanities students to discover ways to improve accessibility and user friendliness. We do not plan to promise solutions in this area during the life of this project, but we do plan to pay attention to what works and what is needed. Along the way, creative solutions may be discovered.
In its initial form, the program will be free, and the music will be obtained from sources such as YouTube which are openly accessible, so there should not be licensing problems involved.
It is estimated that during the semester, it would be possible to design a WordPress website platform embedded with a Zoom Meeting link, produce a working description and structural program design detailing focus, agenda, protocol, audio-visual equipment, presentation, interactive participation possibilities, etc., and explore options for a flexible program (define the intended content and delivery options) and create a pilot model.
Gold, Matthew K., and Lauren F. Klein. 2019. “A DH That Matters” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein. University of Minnesota Press.
Qiu, Wei Qiao, et al. “Physical and Menta Health of Homebound Elderly: An Overlooked Population.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, vol. 58, no. 12, Dec. 2010, pp. 2423-28. PubMed Central. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1532-5415.2010.03161.x.