The Chesterhorn

A few weeks ago I attended a local music education workshop and the topic of adaptive music came up.  The presenter mentioned Walter Chesnut, and as I had never heard of him, I decided to do some research.

Walter Chesnut was a beloved trumpet professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, MA.  When a disk in his spine exploded, Chesnut lost the ability to walk and to play his trumpet.  He could still use his index finger, but switching between fingerings with just one finger was clumsy.  Jim Snedeker was a graduate student at UMass Amherst at the time, and he pioneered a project to make Chesnut an adapted instrument.  I had the opportunity to speak with him about his work.

One day in 1997, Snedeker started daydreaming about a device that could make trumpet valves go down.  He noticed how pressing a button on a cash register can make something happen and wondered if the same technology could be used with trumpet valves.  Snedeker made a prototype out of balsa wood that sat above the valves with a touchpad on each one. He researched solenoids, only to realize that the ones he needed would be so heavy that Walter wouldn’t be able to hold up the trumpet.  

Then Snedeker went to the engineering department and found Mike Conboy and Asaph Murfin.  They liked the idea of touchpads, and they worked to create a system that used compressed nitrogen.  Two and a half years later, the “Chesterhorn” was completed.  The first valve was operated by the first finger, the second one was at an angle, and the third valve was operated by the thumb. Walter Chesnut performed using the trumpet for the first time in 2000.  


Another of Chesnut’s students, Andy Forster, made another trumpet adaptation which transferred the valve operation to the feet using cymbal pedals.  

Snedeker wrote an article about the Chesterhorn and about many other adaptive music projects.  You can read it here.  Thank you, Jim, for exploring possibilities!

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