Daily Gazette article-The Magic Flute

June 10 - 2007                 Published with permision of Bill Buell,  reporter from the Daily Gazette.                           http://www.dailygazette.com                                                         Text only version at the bottum of the page.





 Gazette Reporter
 Dave Whalen can't actually do a drum solo, strum a guitar, or manipulate
 the keys on a saxophone. He can, however, make beautiful music, and thanks
 to the efforts of an enterprising physical therapist/musician in the
 Netherlands by the name of Ruud van der Wel, his musical options seem
 The two men first met almost three years ago on the internet, and since
 that time have worked together - through e-mail and e-conferencing -  to
 come up with a ground-breaking musical instrument they call the magic
 flute. It's an amalgamation of the slide flute Whalen, a quadriplegic, had
 made for himself, and the electronic saxophone, or Wx5, that van der Wel
 uses as part of his respiratory therapy work with children.
 Currently, there are only five magic flutes in the world - four are in the
 Netherlands and the fifth is at Whalen's home in Glenville - but the two
 men are hoping that in time the instrument will become available to
 quadriplegics around the world as well as other people with severe
 physical disabilities who normally could only dream about making music
 "We're hoping that some day the kid with the most profound disability will
 be playing some wonderfully-sounding, electronically synthesized flute or
 trumpet," said Whalen, an attorney who works for the Office of Court
 Administration in Cohoes. "A kid who never dreamed he'd be able to
 participate, will be playing music in the school band."
 They're not there yet, but Whalen and van der Wel are convinced they're on
 their way. A guitarist and keyboard player in his own band, van der Wel
 first started implementing music into his physical therapy program eight
 years ago.
 "What triggered the idea was watching this fellow work with children and a
 wind controller," said van der Wel. "I thought, 'I have to try this at the
 rehabilitation center,' so I did and it worked  very well. I started with
 just two kids, but I could see the enjoyment they got out of it, and I got
 so much positive feedback from parents and teachers."
 The therapy does more than just make an individual feel good about playing
 music. It can make them healthier.
 "One of the reasons I started was because, as a quad, your lungs get tight
 over the years and stop expanding as much as they used to," said Whalen.
 "I thought playing music might be a fun activity to fight that."
 That's exactly what van der Wel was thinking.
 "We're doing a pilot study with kids who have never had respiratory
 therapy with a musical instrument and we're going to see what kind of
 effect it has on their lungs after three months," said van der Wel. "The
 doctors like what we're doing, but they want more proof. As David knows,
 these kids have very little lung capacity, and without the music the
 therapy can get very boring. The music gets them emotionally involved, and
 they're more likely to practice every day ."
 For van der Wel's most disabled patients, however, playing a wind
 controller or an electronic sax was still quite a reach. What he was
 looking for was something that allowed a severely disabled person - a
 person with very limited use of their hands - to play the instrument by
 moving their head.  Whalen, meanwhile, who was injured in a skiing
 accident in 1981, had been experimenting with making music for quite some
 time, and originally took up the harmonica, the only instrument he figured
 he would ever be able to play. However, when a close friend, B.J. Henry,
 created a slide flute that allowed Whalen to change the pitch with head
 movements, he started thinking of other possibilities. Then, one day he
 happened to come across van der Wel's Web site,
 "David was one of the first people to contact me after I built my Web
 site," said van der Wel. "I had been having such great success at the
 rehabilitation center with the wind controllers, I wanted to share it with
 the world. David had been playing his harmonica and he and his friend
 [Henry] had come up with the idea to buy a slide scope. I had the
 electronic sax, they had the slide flute, so we realized that if we could
 marry these two things we might come up with a brand new instrument with
 endless possibilities."
 Van der Wel and Whalen worked together to come up with a paper detailing
 exactly what their new instrument should look like, and sent the proposal
 to universities in the U.S., the Netherlands and Great Britain. They got
 no response. Fortunately, however, van der Wel made the acquaintance of
 Brian Dillon of Unique Perspectives, a company based in Ireland.
 "I asked him if he would please read our paper; he did on the plane back
 to Ireland, and he was mailing me the next day telling me what an
 astounding idea it was," said van der Wel. "He built a demo version about
 a year ago, and we've been getting feedback from my patients and from some
 other people with spinal cord injuries, and in April we got what we feel
 is the perfect final version."
 The magic flute swivels on top of a camera mount and is moved up or down
 using the mouth piece. An internal gyroscope detects the angular position
 and converts that into a note or pitch, and the strength of the breath
 into the mouth piece determines the volume of the note. The instrument
 comes with a control unit called the blue box that plugs into a computer
 synthesiser to produce the sound. A special feature called a sound card
 allows the musician to not only create flute music, but also other wind
 instruments, horns, guitar and even the piano and drums.
 The magic flute created quite a stir in the Netherlands, especially when
 van der Wel's rehab center was broken into and much of his musical
 equipment was stolen. At the time, he only had one magic flute and had
 sent it back to Dillon for more revisions.
 "Our therapy room had been stripped by thievery and I had gotten pretty
 emotional about it," said van der Wel. "Three days earlier I had sent the
 magic flute back to Brian, but everything else, all my Wx5's, my guitars,
 were gone. Well, some of the parents got really mad and started calling
 the television stations. The next day I was on national television and all
 over the newspapers talking about what happened and the magic flute.
 People wanted to hear about the kids. Seven times in two weeks I was on
 national television. I knew how Elvis must have felt."
 The publicity surrounding the incident helped van der Wel get some
 sponsorship money for his musical therapy program and the magic flute, and
 much of his equipment turned up at a pawn shop and was returned to him by
 the police.  Now, the goal is to build more magic flutes and sell them.
 The cost for each instrument, according to van der Wel, is around $1,500
 U.S. dollars.
 "My immediate goal is to get some people to buy them so that Brian Dillon
 can be rewarded," said van der Wel. "He hasn't gotten any money for this,
 and without him the magic flute would still be just a dream for us. But my
 ultimate kick would be to get these instruments in rehabilitation centers
 all over the world, not just mine, and then eventually, because every kid
 deserves one, they should be in homes."
 Whalen, meanwhile, is anxious to see how the magic flute will evolve into
 bigger and better things.
 "This is just the start, and we're not leaving anybody behind," said
 Whalen. "If you have a disability of any kind, the point is that with the
 resources we have today, there might be a solution for you. New technology
 and computers are opening many doors for us."
 Whalen knows that as well as anyone. Without the internet, he and Ruud
 never would have joined forces and created the magic flute.
 "I was sick in bed for a while, but because of the internet I could play
 my harmonica and make music with Ruud in Amsterdam," said Whalen. "He's
 really been the driving force behind this. It's amazing what he's done,
 and he's done it all without getting a cent."
 Van der Wel, however, says he has been compensated quite nicely for his
 "I wanted to make music accessible to my students," he said, "and we've
 done that. It's wonderful to get so much positive feedback, to see the
 kids get excited and to see their parents involved. It has so enriched my
 life, that I am very happy to do this."
 Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or