arts

A blind musician can feel a conductor's movements, thanks to a high-tech baton

Updated 20th August 2020
Credit: CNN
A blind musician can feel a conductor's movements, thanks to a high-tech baton
Written by Stephanie Bailey; Video by Stefanie Blendis, CNN
When Kyungho Jeon was young, he dreamed of playing in an orchestra, but his teachers feared it would be too difficult -- not because he lacked musical talent, but because he was born blind, and couldn't see a conductor's movements to follow their cues.
"I was really sad," says Jeon, "but I never gave up and kept pursuing a musical career."
Jeon, 32, says he was drawn to music from an early age, connecting the sounds of nature with tonal colors.
"When I listen to music, I feel many motifs," says Jeon. "I feel the brightness and darkness, and warmth and coldness."
He was fascinated by percussion and eventually became an accomplished marimba soloist. But his visual impairment still made it hard to play with an orchestra.
Blind percussionist fulfils dream of playing in an orchestra
Frustrated, Jeon started to imagine ways to feel a conductor's motion instead. Two years ago, he met Vahakn Matossian and his father, Rolf Gehlhaar, the founders of Human Instruments, an organization that designs musical technology in collaboration with people with physical disabilities. Together, they created the "Haptic Baton."
Jeon is now a virtuoso percussionist based in Seoul, and with the help of this new technology, he finally has the opportunity to play with an ensemble.
The conductor uses the device as they would a regular baton. Sensors inside the baton detect different kinds of movement, including direction and acceleration, and turn it into vibrations. These vibrations are transmitted wirelessly to receivers that Jeon wears on a wrist or ankle on each side of his body.
Blind virtuoso percussionist Kyungho Jeon
Blind virtuoso percussionist Kyungho Jeon Credit: CNN
If the conductor moves the baton to the right, the receiver on Jeon's right side will instantly vibrate. If the conductor moves to the left, Jeon feels the vibration in the corresponding receiver.
"I can feel with my body what I cannot see," says Jeon. "Through the vibration that is delivered by the device, I can feel how the conductor beats: strong, soft, smooth or long."

Accessible dreams

The World Health Organization estimates that globally, at least 2.2 billion people have some form of visual impairment or blindness. Matossian hopes the device will help more visually impaired musicians join orchestras.
"If you look around the orchestra today, you'll see almost no players of disability," he says. "There are millions of players around the world of exceptional quality, who just happen to be visually impaired. Now with this new invention, there's no excuse for orchestras not to have visually impaired members."
The baton has allowed Jeon to play alongside blind and sighted musicians, and now he has another ambition: to conduct an orchestra.
"This baton," he says, "allows new dreams."