The Case for Adapted Musical Instruments

David Nabb is a Professor of Music at the University of Nebraska at Keaney.  He suffered a stroke in 2000 which paralyzed the left side of his body.  Over the course of several years, he worked with Jeff Stelling to design a saxophone that can be played with the right hand alone.  David recently gave a TedX talk in Lincoln, Nebraska about rediscovering his musical identity through his adapted instrument.  Thank you, David, for sharing your story and your musicianship!

I invented something! And you can, too!

About 6 years ago, I created a soprano recorder brace out of a plastic thumb rest, a wooden dowel, a screw, some glue, and some foam.  I use this brace today and I made one for my alto recorder, as well.  They are not fancy, but they work.

After dreaming about doing this for ages, I finally designed a brace that can be 3D printed!  

I used Tinkercad, a free, online platform for 3D design.  The program is easy to use; even without a background in engineering, I quickly learned how to create, resize, align, and group shapes.  Try it yourself!  

The engineering teacher at my school helped me print a few test pieces once my Tinkercad files were completed.  I designed one that is the same size as my original and a smaller one for elementary students.  Both of these designs are now available as open source files on Thingiverse.  Please share them with anyone who might benefit from them!

Open Source STL Files:

Recorder Arm Adult Size

Recorder Arm Child Size

Being an Advocate

As a musician with a limb difference and a music educator, I have a unique perspective on the challenges of integrating students with limb differences in the music classroom.  Countless teachers have asked me what they can do to help their students.  Indeed, I have met many thoughtful, caring teachers who think years in advance about how they will help a student with their instrumental studies.  I have also spoken with many parents who want their children to be included in music class.  Very occasionally I hear a story about a music teacher who says that a child with a limb difference cannot play an instrument.  

What do you do in this situation?  As a person with a limb difference or a parent, how do you react?  I think it is important to keep several concepts in mind.

  1. Breathe.  It can be infuriating to hear someone say that what you are trying to do is impossible.
  2. Realize this: you have an educational opportunity.  The music teacher who is sharing closed-minded opinions has probably never taught a student with a limb difference.  You have the power to change the way they see the world.  People with limb differences can live normal lives, tie shoes, make jokes, and play musical instruments.  
  3. Do some research.  What instrument is the challenge?  How have other musicians with limb differences used adaptive techniques to play?  Check out articles on this blog and elsewhere on the internet.  Show these adaptations to the teacher.  Try to stay patient and positive.
  4. Contact me!  I am happy to brainstorm with you and talk to music teachers who need ideas.
  5. Prove them wrong!  Learn how to play an instrument.  Surprise the music teacher, other classmates, and the world.  Model grit, perseverance, and creativity.
  6. Tell me about your solution, as I am always collecting more!

The Voice

To be clear, this post is not about an adaptation.  Instead, I would like to highlight another professional musician, bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff.  Although he retired from public performance in 2012, Quasthoff had a prolific performing and recording career.  He continues to teach, and judging from videos of his masterclasses, his students are undoubtedly lucky to study with him.  

Quasthoff was born with limb differences caused by his mother’s exposure to thalidomide.  His arms are short and he is missing several fingers.  Quasthoff was denied entrance into music conservatories in German because of his inability to play the piano proficiently.  (What would these conservatories say today, now that Quasthoff is one of the most celebrated singers in the world?)  Like so many musicians with physical differences, Quasthoff was committed to pursuing his art, regardless of what others thought of him.  He studied voice privately, won the ARD International Music Competition, and launched his career.  

Quasthoff is admired for his interpretations of German lieder and Bach as well as for his jazz improvisations.  I had the great pleasure of hearing him perform Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with the Berlin Philharmonic years ago, which was one of the most beautiful and memorable concerts I have ever attended.  Quasthoff’s artistry is genuine and sublime.

Quasthoff wrote a memoir of his life called The Voice.  

There are many videos of Quasthoff online, including videos of his collaborations with everyone from Bryn Terfel to Bobby McFerrin.  Enjoy this recording of Robert Schumann’s Widmung!


Felix Klieser: Professional French Horn Player

I recently had the extraordinary pleasure of communicating with Felix Klieser, one of the best French Horn players in the world.  Felix kindly shared some information with me about his training and technique as a horn player who plays with his feet.


Valerie: How did you make a stand for your instrument?  Did you try several stands before deciding on the one you use today?

Felix: When I began to play French Horn, I was five years old and not very big.  At that time, it was easy to put the instrument on the floor and play sitting down.  Naturally, I grew after a while, and the pressure I had to apply became stronger.  So, we had to think of a method to best hold up the horn.  The stand essentially has the function of holding the horn.  Nothing else.  An friend of the family who is an engineer developed and built this stand with me.  My horn is the same kind of instrument that any other horn player uses.  Therefore, the development of the stand was not especially complicated.  It was actually more complicated to build the stand so that it could collapse.  As a young boy, I played in the National Youth Orchestra and we went on extensive tours.  Especially when traveling on planes, it is a big advantage to have a collapsible stand.  


Valerie: In this video you talk about how as a child, your tone was light.  In order to sound like you have a hand in the bell, you have to make compensations.  How do you do this?  

Felix:  Normally, a horn player always has a hand in the bell.  That has a historical background.  By putting a hand in the bell, the player makes a tone that is somewhat darker and more indirect.  When you don’t have a hand in the bell, you have to make it sound like you do.  A horn player has many ways to influence the sound.  For example, the position of the tongue, the speed of the airstream, or the tightness of the lips.  It took many years until my sound was the same as a horn player with a hand in the bell.  Since no teacher could give me these techniques, I had to try out almost everything myself and practice until it worked.  That was not always easy, but the work was always very satisfying.  I still work on my tone, and I suspect that my work will never end.  There is always something to improve.

Valerie: Are there any other techniques that you use that are different to most horn players?

Felix: No.  If you want to be a horn player, you have to practice a lot.  That is true no matter how many limbs you have.  And since the instrument is the same for everyone, everyone has to struggle with the same difficulties.  

Valerie: Was there a particular teacher who had an influence on you?

Felix:  I studied at the University of Music and Drama in Hannover, Germany, with the Finnish Professor Markus Maskuniitty.  Naturally, he had the biggest influence on me and my playing.  But I also visited many masterclasses, for example, one with the legendary Peter Damm, and so many others.  However, it is not only teachers who are influential.  I have many contacts with other horn players and colleagues, and you can learn a lot by listening to them.  

Valerie: Are you naturally left-footed?

Felix:  Yeah, I can score goals best with my left foot.

Valerie: What are your upcoming performance and recording plans?

Felix:  I have many plans for the future.  Now, it is summer.  That is always festival time.  I’m especially excited about my debut at the Menuhin Festival in Gstaad in Switzerland.  I am playing Mozart’s second and third horn concertos with the festival orchestra there.  In December, I am playing my first concert at the new Elbphilharmonie Hamburg.  For that, I searched for a very special program: pieces for horn and string quartet.  Among other things, the program includes the Mozart Horn Quintett and Beethoven’s Sextet for 2 Horns and String Quartet, which I will play with the horn player Sarah Willis from the Berlin Philharmonic.

In September, my third album will be released.  It features horn trios, and I worked with the pianist Herbert Schuch and the violinist Andrej Bielow.  Among other pieces, we recorded the famous horn trio by Johannes Brahms.  So my life won’t be boring!


Felix’s first two albums are absolutely beautiful.  Order them here.

For any German speakers out there, Felix has an autobiography titled Fußnoten (Footnotes).  You can find it here.

I wish Felix the best of luck with his blossoming career.  If he ever does a tour in the United States, you can bet that I’ll be there!