Unique Piano Disability Device

A pianist in a wheelchair can also use pedals to play thanks to a unique device. It took the researchers from the Mechatronic Laboratory half a year to develop the prototype


From the very beginning, it was Monika Velackova's great wish to play the piano with the use of pedals. The wheelchair-confined pianist could not use them because of her disability. Thanks to a made-to-measure prototype from the Mechatronic Laboratory of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, BUT, Monika Velackova can now play without any restrictions. Since the next year she wants to make a living only by music.

Monika Velackova was born with a cleft spine and a spinal cord disorder, and sice her childhood she has been confined to a wheelchair. At the same time, she showed a great talent for music still in her childhood. She started playing the piano and later added a guitar. But because of her disability she couldn't use the pedals while playing the piano. “Without using the pedals, you can't extend some tones at all. For example, romantic music is built on using the pedals. Without their use, even the brilliant play of the compositions sounded empty. I helped myself differently to replace the pedal – for example, by holding down the lower bass tones for a longer time, or my friends-pianists stepped on the pedal during my performance”, Monika Velackova described.
The conservatory graduate was looking for ways to overcome her limitations. “On the Internet, I have found out that there are three wheelchair pianists in the world who can control the pedals using a special device. So I contacted several technical universities asking for help in the development of such a device and the researchers from the Mechatronic Laboratory of Brno University of Technology were very forthcoming”, a pianist from Slovakia said.

The device was created thanks to the multidisciplinary field of mechatronics

The prototype of the device, which reacts to the movement of Monica's head, was being created at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering of BUT for half a year. During its development, the researchers benefited from the knowledge of the field of mechatronics, which combines knowledge of mechanics, electrical engineering and programming. “With a digital piano, it is possible to replace the pressing of the pedal - in this case the piano is given a signal by a sensor, which is placed on the pianist’s ear. It is a sensor that reacts to the movement of the head similar to a mobile phone that flips the display of photos when rotated. If the head is tilted, the sensor sends a signal to the piano via a special device to extend the tone. There is no need to press the pedal physically, everything will be done by the electronics”, the researcher from the Mechatronic Laboratory of FME BUT Michal Bastl described the principle of operation of the device.

Michal Bastl worked on the project together with his colleague Michal Matejasek. A pair of researchers had to design the electronics first, put together the components and then develop the software, or firmware that ensures that the piano responds to the head nod as the pianist needs. “This is a prototype made-to-measure for Monica Velackova. We adjusted the device and its sensitivity during the development in such a way that the player felt comfortable. The nod looks very much like a nod to 'yes'”, Michal Bastl explained. The researchers worked on the development and production of the equipment in their free time and the costs of the purchase of components and production were covered by the Mechatronic Laboratory of FME BUT. “We didn't have to think about whether or not to go to this project. For us it was a trifle and it enabled her to fulfil her dream of playing the piano without restraint”, concluded Michal Bastl.

The prototype has been successfully tested and Monika talks about it in superlatives. “Hardly anyone can imagine what this device means to me. After years of knowing how to use the pedal only theoretically, I can integrate its functions into my playing. But I must say that the first months were quite difficult. It was difficult to coordinate the hands on the keyboard and the head movements to replace the pedals. In a way, I was learning to play again from the beginning”, the 29-year-old pianist said. While Monika Velackova now works in the administration and makes some extra money with music, since the next year she will devote herself completely to music only. As a piano teacher, she will work at the Elementary Art School in Dubnice nad Vahom and, in addition, she wants to open her own private piano lessons. And she believes that with her band she will have the opportunity to perform at home in Slovakia. Published: 2019-12-04. https://www.vut.cz/en/but/f19528/d193890