An invisible expanding keyboard in space. It sounds more like something you’re more likely to find in an episode of Star Trek than in a school music room, but the Soundbeam keyboard is quite a fixture at Alexander Ferguson Elementary School.

Soundbeam is a technology that was developed in the UK and is primarily used there for special needs education. The Soundbeam keyboard is made up of a series of invisible beams that grow in width the further out they get from the source; students move in and out of the beams to trigger different sounds and images and create full compositions. The Soundbeam keyboard is also accompanied by a series of switches that add effects or filters to the sound produced by the beams. Alexander Ferguson currently has four beams and eight switches and they are still learning how best to use them.

“It’s got a lot of potential,” says Assistant Principal Dan Dornan. “We’re still discovering what it can do.”
Dan found out about Soundbeam after talking to a company representative at a teacher’s convention. He followed up with the rep and paid a visit to Christine Meikle School, which uses Soundbeam for students with special needs. There Soundbeam is used because it gives students with a limited range of motor skills the chance to experience music; even the smallest movement creates beautiful sounds.

Alexander Ferguson isn’t a special needs school; it’s an art focused school. Still, Dan says that Soundbeam has a similar advantage in a general education context, because it gives students without strong musical gifts a chance to express themselves creatively.

“It’s quite magical; you just set it up and people want to move into it,” he says. “There’s a bit of a stigma about dance and movement. People think ‘I could never do that,’ but the sounds you can make are so interesting that it frees people of their inhibitions and stimulates creative movement and thinking.”

Creative thinking is key with Soundbeam.  Students can work together to create whole soundscapes.  In a forest scene, for example, students have a bank of sounds that they can create and choose from. Lighter sounds would represent a squirrel, whereas deeper sounds could be used to create images of a bear.  And to complement those sounds, images of forests would appear projected from the Soundbeam setup, changing and blurring as the music flows.

“At the beginning we had one kid go in at a time to understand their movements,” Dan says “but now the older students can work as a team. They have to be attentive to the group as a whole, so they can see what they can do to complement the process.”

Students then reflect back on soundscapes they’ve made as a group and create artwork, poetry and stories inspired by their compositions. Local artists have even volunteered their time to come in and help the students refine their techniques. The artwork the students create can then be added to the Soundbeam picture bank and be used in future compositions. The Soundbeam process comes full circle and the result is wonderful teamwork and a unique approach to literacy.