The Sound of Hope: Instrument of Change

For many years AMEND MUSIC CENTER has been working on ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES. We have developed many adaptive mechanisms that have been designed to help musicians that are disabled in any manner. This includes changing fingering mechanisms, adding braces, moving existing parts, building support systems and many other physical adaptations. Our crowning achievement was brought to life by means of a Small Business Innovation and Research Grant that we were awarded by the United States Department of Education. We manufactured and developed a device that successfully takes the place of a person's disabled fingers and allows them to play a musical instrument that would normally require the use of a full set of fingers. We have named the device the AMEND MIAD (Musical Instrument Actuating Device). We have successfully completed development of MIADs for saxophones and baritones. We have plans for many other instruments and are sure that they would work to an extent at least equal to the MIADs we have already built. The following is a reprinted version of an article written for the Spokane Spokesman Review newspaper. It will give you an idea of how we believe ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES can change people's lives.

THE SOUND OF HOPE: INSTRUMENT OF CHANGE by Kristen Kromer

As Lukas Bratcher's baritone belts out the bass line of a syncopated calypso rhythm, listeners may be impressed by the 13-year-old's rich, full tone.

But what they will be captivated by is how the Northwood Middle School seventh-grader plays the instrument: He manipulates a joystick on a shiny, gold box perched atop a stand next to his wheelchair. The baritone hangs from a strap around his neck so that it lies in his lap. As he blows air into the horn, he manipulates the baritone's valve by moving the joystick.

To experience his playing is to hear the beautiful song of opportunity grasped - in this case an opportunity provided by south hill repairman Robin Amend.

When Lukas was born 13 years ago in Saudi Arabia, doctors told his mom, Kristy, he wouldn't live. He had severe club feet, his toes folded toward his heels, his hips were rotated out and frozen in place and his knees were locked in a flexed position. His hands were folded in toward his arms so severely his mom couldn't even get a cotton swab into the area to clean it.

"I felt shock, grief ..... It was an overwhelming feeling," Kristy Bratcher remembered.

Lukas was originally misdiagnosed, so it wasn't until his parents met with doctors at Children's Hospital in Seattle for a second opinion that they heard the 17 syllables that explained what was going on with their son: amnyoplasia arthrogryposis multiplex congenita -- meaning Lukas was born with very stiff, locked joints; weak muscles; and limited range of motion in all four limbs.

It is not a disease; it does not progress. And though he is considered quadriplegic, he has no nerve damage. Kristy Bratcher said she will always remember the indescribable feeling of learning that her son would live.

Then started a series of seven major orthopedic surgeries in nine years, various casts and braces to get Lukas' body into a 'neutral' position with straight arms and straight legs.

He has sped around in a power wheelchair since he was 2 and has been walking short distances in full leg braces with a walker since he was 6. He can now do 50 yards in about 12 minutes.

His arms have limited muscles -- he has only a trace of biceps -- so he needs to use his body to move his arms. Though he can't reach down to pick up something off the floor, he can get things out of his lap. He can turn pages in a book, write and use a fork and spoon.

Though he's been given a collection of gadgets to help him use a keyboard, Lukas figured out his own one-handed way to type, assistance-free.

To everything, he brings a spirit of "of course I can." When he learned his school didn't have a chess club, for example, he and a friend said, "We'll change that!" and did.

In Saudi Arabia, where the family lived for 13 years while Lukas' father worked for an oil company, Lukas entered a fifth grade music program. Choosing an instrument was easy. His fingers couldn't reach all the buttons on a saxophone, clarinet or flute, and he couldn't hold his arms up long enough to play the trumpet. The baritone, though, he could lay in his lap and hunch over to reach the mouthpiece.

He played it for a year. Then in July, 1999, Lukas, his mother and younger brother moved to Spokane and into the Mead School District.

Lukas wanted to continue making music, but the small baritone he played in Saudi Arabia was not available here. When he tried out the Northwood baritone, he could only get one note out of it.

"He was willing to sit there and play the note -- he wanted to be in band that badly," remembered Lee Shook, director of bands at Northwood. "He was happy to play whatever he could get out of it."

But then Shook introduced him to Robin Amend.

Amend, who runs the South Hill's AMEND MUSIC CENTER with his wife Debbie, has been reparing instruments for 26 years. Throughout his life, he's harbored a secret passion -- something for which he thanks his grandfather.

A musician in the early 1900's, Amend's grandfather lost his arm in a lumber mill accident. Continually visited by dreams of playing music, he invented a device that helped him pluck stringed instruments, draw a bow across a violin or cello, and play the piano. He even started a trio of one-armed musicians.

"Because of him I have a heart toward helping disabled people play musical instruments," said Amend, 47.

His first step down that road occurred when he was able to modify a clarinet so a girl with misshapen fingers was able to reach all the keys.

Then, in 1990, he awoke in the middle of the night, sat up and said, "I know I can do it now." From what he calls a God-given dream, he saw a way to help those with disabilities play instruments.

In 1993 he won a $33,000 small business innovation and research grant to build a prototype of the device, and the Amend MIAD (for Musical Instrument Actuating Device) was born. It still is not patented because Amend said that it would cost $6,000 per instrument for the patents, and he figures he's able to do more good without spending so much on patents.

"If it helps people play, then what the heck," Amend said with a shrug. "I don't care. That's not how I make my money."

For Lukas' baritone, the Amend MIAD consists of the joystick box and another box mounted above the baritone valves. The two are connected by a cord, and plugged into a battery.

Moving the joystick into different positions sends electrical impulses to three solenoids that depress the baritone keys in corresponding combinations. Amend said it can move just as fast as fingers. It mounts on the horn with screws, and when it's removed, the instrument is ready for regular playing.

It takes Amend three weeks to make one unit, and costs between $1,000 and $1,500. It also has been used to help a girl with one hand play a saxophone.

Though the Amend MIAD gives Lukas the technical ability to move the keys, it does not give him the heart to play, the talent to turn notes into music. To be able to blow into one end of a twisted piece of metal and have it come out the other a sweet melody is something else Lukas was born with.

Lukas and his mom met with Amend a few times for lessons - she had to learn how to connect the cords, and he had to learn which joystick positions corresponded to which notes.

But though he agreed that the device was amazing, Lukas initially didn't like it.

"I didn't know how to use it," he said. After already having played the baritone for a year, he said it was like starting over learning how to play.

And not so long ago, he almost quit.

"It got so frustrating how many mistakes I was making. So many people were telling me I needed to work more, but there was homework to do, and I had to walk."

He stuck it out though and is glad he did.

Now that I've figured it out, I like it," he said.

Others do, too.

Lukas returned home from a recent solo contest with a blue ribbon for his superior performance.

"For his age, he has a very well developed sound," said Shook. "It's quite remarkable."

Last week Lukas competed with Northwood's seventh-grade jazz band in the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival at University of Idaho. The band placed second in the junior high category -- the highest the band has ever placed.

Beside the fact that the contest building was not wheelchair accessible and Shook had to fashion an impromptu ramp, Lukas said that playing in the competition was a good experience.

"I've never done something like that before," he said.

"Who would have thought that a quadriplegic could go play in a jazz festival?" added Amend.

Lukas gets to school by seven A.M. twice a week to practice with the jazz band, in addition to his daily concert band rehearsals. Shook said he positioned Lukas strategically at the end of the trombone section because of his excellent sound.

"He motivates the other kids to play better," he said. "He always has a smile on his face and is encouraging other students."

That doesn't surprise his mom, who knows well the spirit he brings to everything he does.

"My brother once called him a 'changel'," she said. "Even if it's just for one second that you are thankful for the physical body you were born with -- people meet him and are then changed a little."

For more information about Lukas and an update on his situation you can find more articles about him in the Publications section of this website.

If you know a disabled person who could use some help getting started in music, please contact our store at 877.483.0276 or, locally at 483.0276 and we would be glad to advise them and help in any way we can.