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Making Music--Accessible


Class’s Efforts to Design Low-cost Instruments Get Boost from Renowned Cellist

The question to professional cellist Ben Sollee had to do with frets. A student team was designing an inexpensive cello that could expand interest in the instrument among public school students. The team had been advised to avoid adding a fret to facilitate playing, like a guitar has, because that would change the cello’s appearance and, in effect, lower its status. Sollee, providing feedback to team members recently in an Olin classroom, had a different opinion.

“The lack of a fret is what keeps the cello an elitist instrument,” said Sollee, a celebrated songwriter and musician who learned his art in the Kentucky public schools and his own highly musical family. “I encourage you to make a cello that is accessible to a broader base than the classical cello.”

That is in fact the goal of Making Music, a class that brings together nine students from Olin and 15 from the Mass College of Art and Design. The class, funded in part by a grant from Autodesk, is using the company’s design software to create affordable stringed instruments that can be built easily and used in public school music programs or sold as part of business ventures in low-income communities.

The class has four teams—two working on the low-cost cello project, and two working to create a curriculum to teach how to make guitars and stringed instruments. The curriculum would be rolled out in Clarksdale, a low-income Mississippi Delta community where Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship, another Olin course, has an ongoing project to create a mobile working space in which local students can work on creative, hands-on projects.

The many music festivals held in the Delta region, known for a distinctive style of blues music, would provide an ample market for local products like the guitars and diddley bows—simple, single-string instruments—that would be made as part of the curriculum.

During Sollee’s visit on March 28, students presented prototypes and designs for their instruments, some of which were made using common items like cookie tins and other “found” objects. Students worked around tables covered with sketches and templates of fingerboards, instrument bodies and soundboards.

During a break, Sollee said the class’s work lined up well with his efforts to increase access to the cello. “Because of the cost, because of the process to learn it and the type of music associated with it, the cello hasn’t been adopted by other cultures,” says Sollee. “Projects like this are incredibly important to the cause of making it more accessible.”

Olin sophomore Regina Walker, working on one of the guitar-building teams, had the opportunity to travel to Clarksdale and work with young people who would use the new curriculum. She says the fact that she is working on something that will have a “real, positive impact” on people distinguishes this class from others she’s taken.

“It’s a lot different when I know that I’m working to create something that is supposed to enter the world outside of Olin,” says Walker. “It’s a lot more pressure, but it’s a lot easier for me to feel invested in the project.”

For Olin Professor Ben Linder, who is co-teaching the class with Professor James Read of Mass College of Art, a key aim—beyond teaching engineering and design skills—is making students aware of the inequalities that exist among different populations where access to the arts is concerned.

“Our message to students is to participate in democratizing access to cultural possibilities like music,” says Linder. “You should question who has access and why and look at what you bring to the table as engineering students and industrial design students to make these instruments and this music more accessible, more democratic and more open.”

For more photos from Making Music, please view our Behind the Scenes slideshow.