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My four-year-old sister has tragically suffered left side paralysis from a brain injury. Because she's so young, her brain is remarkably plastic, and a lot of functionality has returned. She can walk, she can talk, and cognitively, she's fine. Her smile has even become more symmetrical.

We don't know to what degree her motor skills will return, but in her left hand/arm, progress is really slow. We know she will always have some left-side weakness, but just not how much.

I really want her to be musical. What fairly complex instruments will she be able to learn in the future, assuming she never fully recovers the use of her left arm/hand? Are there any simple instruments we can start her on now so she can have fun and experience music?

Also, as a bit of a fun tangent, are there any examples of musicians that became paralysed to some capacity and continued to play?

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    She is human; the instrument is a tool for humans to be expressive. People don't fit the instruments; it's the other way around. My answer is that she should play whatever she wants to play - whatever it is, there is a way to make it work. It would indeed be a sad thing to teach a 4-year old that she's limited by her disability. – jjmusicnotes Jul 10 '17 at 18:44
  • @jjmusicnotes Fair point. But just to play devil's advocate, if I were to lose both of my arms and legs in a car accident, and then decide that I really want to be a concert organist, would it be cruel to inform me that you need hands and feet to play the organ traditionally? (I can, of course, argue against this myself, I'm just developing your thesis.) – General Nuisance Jul 10 '17 at 22:42
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    No, that's not cruel at all; that's how the organ is traditionally played. However, it would be cruel to teach them that they're less-than because of it. It would be my jumping-off point: "The organ is traditionally played this way, so for you, we're going to have to figure something out". Problems are not barriers, they are opportunities for solutions. It's quite easy, with today's technology to find videos of successful, disabled musicians. This is a link to Evelyn Glennie, a remarkable percussionist who happens to be deaf: youtube.com/watch?v=IU3V6zNER4g – jjmusicnotes Jul 11 '17 at 1:57
  • @jjmusicmotes Thank you. I think all of that meets the criteria of a great answer. You should post it as such. – General Nuisance Jul 11 '17 at 14:04
  • I've re-posted my comment as an answer, per your suggestion. I've also edited it slightly so that it reads more like an answer. – jjmusicnotes Jul 12 '17 at 1:46

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All of the above. And if none work out, there's always the voice. I wouldn't say that a great singer is less musical, and less musically valuable, than any instrumentalist.

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    Great work here! So easy to overlook the voice sometimes. – General Nuisance Jul 12 '17 at 3:43
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In the long run, brass instruments require only one hand, for the most part. There are also several manufacturers who make one-handed versions of woodwind instruments, though these are quite expensive. But it's very hard for a four-year-old to start on these instruments.

I would recommend piano. It has been shown to be an effective means of physical therapy for stroke survivors. As a personal anecdote, there was a kid who had the lesson slot right before mine for years (so I heard him practicing quite a lot), and I actually didn't know at first that he had a severe impairment in his left hand.

  • I like the piano idea, although repertoire will be limited if you're restricted to one hand. You need both hands to play most pieces of classical music (i.e. what a lot of piano lessons, including the ones I took from 3 piano teachers, solely provide), even easy ones such as Clementi sonatas and Bach minuets. However, you can make decent arrangements of a lot of non-classical songs for one hand only. – Dekkadeci Jul 11 '17 at 13:29
  • @Dekkadeci I guess there are ways to simplify piano pieces as well to enable her playing the classics – Arsak Jul 11 '17 at 19:21
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TRDR: Singing, from personal experience.

Since birth, my right side has been paralyzed, though not as badly as your sister. I have had singing lessons for years, and I still find them very enjoyable. I have never felt like I was hindered at singing.

Another reason to choose singing is that the technical part is easy, especially at the beginning. A beginning singer sings a melody badly, but a beginning piano player plays one tone... and then another. Every child learns the very basics of singing, when they learn to talk, but the basics of an instrument need to be learned from scratch.

Also, she will probably get a lot of physical therapy throughout her childhood. Physical therapy can be fun, but also very frustrating. During therapy, I frequently thought things like: "Why do I need to practice this, I will never heal anyway", or "Why can't I just use my good arm" Knowing that your physical skills will never be that high isn't motivating, and singing might be easier to practice.

One final bit of advice if you want to get her a musical teacher, get her a teacher who is concerned with fun and advancing at you own pace, not one who cares much about results. Her whole childhood, she will see that she is not as far as other children, that she needs to work harder for a worse result. She will have to learn to set her own goals, and to not be overly concerned about others advancing faster. A teacher who doesn't help with this will be terrible for her, and might kill her interest in music and her self-confidence.

  • This is such an incredibly valuable answer. Thank you for your unique insight into the mind of my sister! – General Nuisance Jul 16 '17 at 0:28
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    In a nutshell, she needs to understand that the only competition is against herself. It's not competing against others, only bettering herself. If only we could all take on that mantle... – Tim Jul 20 '17 at 19:09
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Just speculative idea....

Music instruments are slowly becoming electronic, and some sound very good. And there are numerous newer type of electronic instruments that are perfectly suitable for and designed for one hand play. See for example Roli blocks.

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I'm not sure about one-sided paralysis specifically, but there are a number of famous musicians who had disabilities which involved partial or total loss of a hand (or two). Those that spring to mind are:

  • Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm in the First World War and continued to perform piano concerts, commissioning works for left-handed piano from major composers of the day.
  • Django Reinhardt was partially paralyzed (and badly burned) in a caravan fire, and permanently lost the use of two fingers. He was a pretty mean guitarist.
  • Felix Klieser has no hands and plays French Horn wonderfully.
  • Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath lost the fingertips of his left hand in an industrial accident and used home-made prosthetic fingertips to play bass guitar.
  • Rick Allen, drummer for Def Leppard, lost an arm in a car accident in 1985 at the height of the band's fame, and continues to play with them to this day.

Some instruments (cornet, bugle, trumpet) can be used one-handed as-is, many others with modification. Another Way To Play lists different instrument adaptaions that are available. A good place to start might be the recorder. There are one-handed models available from several manufacturers. They're not cheap though!

For advice on your sister's specific problems, ask her doctors. Medical professionals who know her will be able to give much better advice than some random person on the internet! It might be worth contacting a music therapist, you may even be able to find someone with experience of similar cases. Depending on her level of abilility with the weaker hand, it may be be that going for a one-handed instrument straight off could be counter-productive, in that it might be possible to find an instrument that would help to strengthen the weaker hand.

So you should be able to find an instrument she can physically play even if she doesn't recover much function in the left hand, but as with any child it's important that it's her that wants to play it and not you. If you sing with her, and play lots of music for/with her then she will develop her musicality and be able to make up her own mind about which instrument (if any) she wants to learn. Four is pretty young to be learning an instrument anyway: for now toy instruments like xylophones, drums, slide whistles and so on can get her started with musical play just like any other four year-old.

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    PS and there's always the nose flute – Bob Jul 10 '17 at 11:13
  • That's a very good point about strengthening the weaker hand. And, of course, my top priority is for her to have control over what she does. For now, the glockenspiel or drums or whatever are fully acceptable and may even help with her recovery! (She had in the past expressed interest in playing the guitar, so she more than likely would have started with that, or uke, or whatever interested her. It's just good to know we have options!) – General Nuisance Jul 10 '17 at 16:12
  • Wasn't Django's accident a caravan fire? – Tim Jul 11 '17 at 6:43
  • @Tim oops - you're quite right. Will edit. – Bob Jul 11 '17 at 10:52
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So far I've thought of:

  • Piano/keyboards/synth (perhaps with foot pedals added)

  • harmonica

  • percussion

  • electric guitar with a sustainiac like device instead of strumming

  • potentially any brass instrument with a harness or something to hold it

  • She had in the past expressed interest in guitar. That is an interesting idea indeed. – General Nuisance Jul 10 '17 at 16:13
  • Chromatic harmonicas have the button *on * the right, so she'd play it the normal way, since her left side is paralysed. Theremin could be another. – Tim Jul 11 '17 at 6:46
  • @GeneralNuisance - guitar can be played with it resting on her lap, tapping and pulling off the strings with r.h. fingers. Several players use one like this. Obviously it'd have to have the neck facing to the right - maybe strung left-handed? – Tim Jul 12 '17 at 5:56
  • @Tim Good point. It's been way too long since I played harmonica I guess. Edited. – Todd Wilcox Jul 12 '17 at 12:28
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I would have added this as a comment as it doesn't fully answer the question but here is an amazing example of what you can do with Bare Conductive paint, a capacitive touch board, and a little bit of programming. I assume that, as you mentioned she was going to be a cellist, she was going to be a classical musician. In that case, you could paint on (modify) an existing instrument and write a program that modifies the notes played so it would better suit her needs.

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French horn could be a suitable instrument, given that it doesn't actually require pressing the keys to make the notes.

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    Most French horns found in orchestras nowadays have valves, playable using r.h., although the l.h. is used to provide better tuning for certain notes. Perhaps bugle is better? – Tim Jul 11 '17 at 6:52
  • Quick correction: French Horns have the valves played by the left hand, with the right hand stuffed up the bell for intonation and sound effect purposes. Pretty much all the other valved brass instruments have the valves on the right hand, with the left either just holding the instrument or operating a tuning trigger. (Some low brass instruments have extra valves operated by the left hand.) – tubadaz Jul 14 '17 at 17:51
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She is human; the instrument is a tool for humans to be expressive. People don't fit the instruments; it's the other way around. My answer is that she should play whatever she wants to play - whatever it is, there is a way to make it work. It would indeed be a sad thing to teach a 4-year old that she's limited by her disability.

For example, organs are traditionally played with both arms and feet. Telling them that you traditionally need arms and feet to play it isn't, in of itself a sad, cruel thing. However, it would be cruel to teach them that they're less-than a person because of it, that they might as well not even try.

A different approach would be to use it as a jumping-off point: "The organ is traditionally played this way, so for you, we're going to have to figure something out". Problems are not barriers, they are opportunities for solutions.

It's quite easy, with today's technology to find videos of successful, disabled musicians. This is a link to a talk by Evelyn Glennie, a remarkable percussionist who also happens to be deaf.

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A computer can be a musical instrument and there are so many options available for music controllers that you can in effect build your own custom musical instrument.

As well as basic music keyboards and percussion pads there are foot operated controllers, devices that respond to breath pressure, body posture, head movements etc.

Maybe you could team up with someone, possibly a student on a technology course, and work together on a project develop musical control concepts for disabled people. There are probably a lot of existing assistive technologies that could be adapted for musical applications.

One thing that comes to mind is to get involved in the maker movement and involve your local HackSpace. I'm sure there will be someone in the community who would love to get involved in such a project.

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I like the piano idea offered earlier. Piano music comes in many levels of complexity regarding what the left hand has to do.

A left-handed guitar would also offer a lot of options for how to use the left hand, ranging from strumming to complex fingering. You can also make notes with the right hand on a left-handed guitar by hammering or pulling off.

A serious problem with both of these instruments, however, is they are generally built for adult-sized hands, not four-year-old hands. That may be more of a limiting factor at this point than any partial paralysis is.

But at the age of four, I'd say the critical thing is to play music. My recollection from being taught via the Orff method at a young age (thought not nearly as young as your sister) was that it involved a lot of percussion instruments (drums, wood blocks, xylophones) that can be played with very small hands. And if your sister's left hand is not yet able to hold a stick and hit the bars of a xylophone where she wants to when she wants to, she can still play a tune with her right hand and can even hold two sticks in that hand to play some harmonies.

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I would suggest Trumpet, as the instrument is small enough/light enough to be held in one hand, and the valves and hand positioning favors the right hand. Of course, this isn't the only option, but immediately that's what comes up in thoughts.

EDIT: Recently the idea of a "left-handed" cello came to mind. It sounds counter-intuitive, but a left-handed cello requires the right hand to do fingering (the bridge, strings, and sound post reverse sides). If the left side is unable to grip and draw a bow, a bow-grip brace can be made for the right foot, and the cello can be bowed with the right foot.

  • Hardly small/light enough for a four-year-old! – Tim Jul 20 '17 at 16:32
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    The question was what instrument would she be able to continue playing assuming a continued left-side paralysis. If for the first few learning years she can be assisted in holding the trumpet up, it's not implausible – psosuna Jul 20 '17 at 17:06
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    Not implausible, true. Maybe small trumpets could be used. I wouldn't really fancy anyone holding my trumpet while I played, and maybe her fingers are too small at the moment to press valves, not to mention embouchures with a standard mouthpiece. just some thoughts, rather than criticisms. – Tim Jul 20 '17 at 17:31
  • It's been said before, but the player doesn't fit the instrument, the instrument fits the player ;) I'm sure a fractional-size instrument is to be found somewhere. Strings certainly have them, but that's beside the point given the construction is different. – psosuna Jul 20 '17 at 18:41
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I agree with some of the previous posts, but here's my list anyway:

First, the instruments she can fully play: 1) Chromatic Harmonica 2) Blues Harmonica 3) Trumpet 4) French Horn (palm of right hand over the rotors, nothing inside the bell) 5) Trombone, Euphonium, Tuba 6) Pan Flutes 7) Auto Harp -probably- 8) Theremin -maybe- 9) Hurdy-Gurdy (reversing hands) if she gets to operate the crank someday

Now, instruments that she can also play to some decent extent: 1) Piano and Synths -melody leads and so- 2) Harp 3) Hammered Dulcimer 4) Marimba, Vibraphone, Xylophone, Glockenspiel, etc. 5) Guitar and Bass (Stringed for left-Handed and using Hammer_On/Pull_Off/Tap techniques) 5) Most Percussion

Hope this helps!

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Trumpet.

There was a UNISA concert by a man who had only one arm, if you only have the use of one side of your body it could maybe work. (Im no trumpet player though)

protected by Dom Jul 21 '17 at 15:57

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