Charlotte White’s Musical Fight

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After the popularity of  our recent post, Klatt’s Last Tapes, we have made the second in a series of videos profiling fascinating assistive technology stories:

Charlotte White’s Musical Fight is a BBC Radio 4 documentary that provides an intimate and in-depth look into the life of a young woman called Charlotte White, who, after an accident in her early teens, was left almost entirely paralysed.

The documentary looks back on Charlotte’s experiences post-accident; how she felt patronised by the immediate rehabilitation therapies she was offered, how she still desired to make music and express her creativity and the struggle to find her place as a teenager in mainstream society.

Video: Charlotte White’s Musical Fight

(for a video transcript: scroll to the bottom or use youtube captions)

In spite of her set-back, Charlotte showed determination to continue advancing the musical skills that she had shown such promise with as a young child, and with the help of assistive technology and the Drake Music Project, Charlotte was provided with a very modern method to allow her creative side to shine. Charlotte is now a  professional classical musician and composer.

Drake Music

Drake Music is a charitable organisation that gives those with disabilities the opportunity to create music using assistive and adaptive technology, helping to provide a creative outlet to many who would otherwise struggle to use ordinary instruments or learn music via typical methods.

Founded in 1988 by Adele Drake, Drake Music is a nation-wide initiative with regional bases dotted around the country in London, Manchester and Bristol.  Their ever-growing team of techs, teachers and advocates continue to work in partnership with numerous schools, universities and local authorities to provide musical opportunities, both creative and educational, to disabled people across the country.

Charlotte speaks of how her introduction to Drake Music was tentative at first, based-upon her previous experiences with music therapy. However, it didn’t take Charlotte long to realise that Drake Music was a far more innovative and beneficial tool than traditional therapies she had already dismissed, and with patience, understanding and ground-breaking assistive technology, she soon found a way to create music again.

Image of Charlotte White smiling, wearing a red cardigan and patterned dress

Charlotte speaks candidly and openly about her post-accident experiences, and how Drake Music changed her outlook.

“When I became disabled, I was introduced to music therapy. Music therapy is literally someone sitting in front of you banging a drum or playing a guitar, and you’re meant to tell them all your worries about life or you’re meant to be really happy because someone’s banging a drum in your face.

[I found that to be] patronising and very boring and completely pointless. And I expected Drake to be like that, but it wasn’t at all. Drake Music gave you the opportunity to play independently, rather than just sitting there listening like a lemon.”


Through Charlotte White’s Musical Fight, we are introduced to a strong-willed, determined young woman, brimming with creativity and promise, who with the help of the Drake Music Project, defies all opposition in continuing to sate her creative needs through the use of assistive technology, and the support of staff at Drake Music.

Enable Us

Charlotte has set up her own website at Enable Us:

Enable Us has been set up as a result of difficulties that my family, friends and I have come across over the years. The overall aim of the site and the project is to empower individuals with impairments, preventing society from disabling people and preventing them from fulfilling their potential.

We also have heard there is a project that Charlotte is working on using music and a certain revolutionary instrument…but we cannot say more at this stage.  We are very excited about it! Watch this space!

Charlotte and Trabasack

We were very pleased to hear that Charlotte has recently become a big fan of trabasack and our new media mount accessory, describing it:

“I love my trabasack,  the velcro thing is great, especially for drinks. I’ve been using it for cooking, work and all sorts!”

Please comment below the transcript and share if you have enjoyed the video.

Video Transcript

00:01 S?: Now on Radio Four, we’ve the touching story of a disabled student and her struggle to play music. Josie D’Arby presents, “Charlotte White’s Musical Fight.”


00:22 Josie D’Arby: In 2008, a video clip appeared on the internet of a teenage girl performing the prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite. Nothing remarkable about this, you may think. Until you learn that the musician, Charlotte White, was playing every crotchet and quaver using only the slightest movements of her head and thumbs.


00:51 JD: This performance proved to be a defining moment in Charlotte’s rehabilitation, but it also raised questions about how musical talent and achievement are assessed. Questions that have yet to be answered.


01:17 JD: Well, I’m just arriving at the home of Charlotte, which is in a small village in Buckinghamshire, where I’m going to meet her and her mother, and just find out how much music has actually changed their lives.

[background music]

01:43 JD: Charlotte, when did you first start playing music?

01:46 Charlotte White: When I was about six years old, I had regular piano lessons like all my friends did at school.

01:52 JD: Were you having examinations?

01:55 CW: I never did exams. My mom wanted us to play for fun rather than to play to achieve something.

02:01 JD: In those early days, did you enjoy doing the piano? Were you loving it?

02:06 CW: Not particularly. It was more something I did because we were all expected to do it. I didn’t start enjoying music until later on in life.

02:13 JD: So can I ask you just to go back to your accident really, would you be able to tell us what happened?

02:18 CW: When I was 11 years old, I used to ride a lot. I competed on a pony. And for a period of a year, I constantly fell off my pony for no apparent reason. The last time, I was in the stable yard holding my rabbit and guinea pig. And I fell over backwards and hit my head, and everything went downhill from there.

02:39 JD: And what was the diagnosis back then? Was it something that they expected you to recover from or what did they tell you could have happened?

02:46 CW: I don’t have a full diagnosis. I got diagnosis which cover some of my problems, but not all of my problems. They’re constantly finding new things out, even now, 11 years on.

02:58 S?: And not surprisingly, this had huge consequences on Charlotte’s quality of life.

03:06 CW: For a long period of time, my life had been about exercise, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and that was it. That was drummed into me day in, day out, day in. And all I was expected to do was achieve and get physically stronger, which wasn’t happening a lot of the time. So that was quite depressing that I was doing all this work and not getting much out of it. And that was the only life I knew. A lot of my friends had moved on by then. They were having fun at school, enjoying life, where I was just having physio, physio, physio. I would only see physios. I’d only see speech therapists. I’d only see people who were meant to make my life better, and improvement, but it never seemed to happen.

03:46 S?: After the accident, Charlotte gradually lost all movement in her body. She spent five years in and out of hospital, and eventually went into a period of rehabilitation regaining movement in her head and then gradually her fingers. At 16, Charlotte began attending St. Rose’s School in Stroud. It was there that she was introduced in the Drake Music Project. An organization that uses technology to help people with disabilities participate in music.

04:14 CW: Doug came up, and I had an option of a cooking class or going to meet Doug and see what Drake Music was about.

04:20 JD: Did you think back to your piano days at six, and think “I have a feel for music.” Did you know that you had a feel?

04:27 CW: When I became disabled, I was introduced to music therapy. Music therapy is literally someone sitting in front of you banging a drum or playing a guitar, and you’re meant to tell them all your worries about life or you’re meant to be really happy because someone’s banging a drum in your face.

04:43 JD: And what… You found that patronizing or what?

04:46 CW: Incredibly patronizing and very boring and completely pointless. And I expected Drake to be like that, but it wasn’t at all. Drake Music gave you the opportunity to play independently, rather than just sitting there listening like a lemon.


05:02 JD: And did that effect your attitude towards it? Tell me about your very first lessons.

05:07 CW: At the time, I had a huge sensitivity to light. Therefore, I wore dark glasses. And spent a lot of time in sort of a half lit room playing music and Doug getting me to interact with him to begin with, and then learning the basics and chords and beats. We listened to a lot of Robbie Williams.

05:28 JD: Was that educational? Or…


05:30 CW: It became educational. [laughter] Very surprisingly.

05:37 Doug Bott: We were working one-to-one, in the dark, very quietly because at the time, she was very sensitive to light. So the only light in the room was the glare off my laptop screen. And the music we were playing was so quiet, that actually the whirr of the fan on the laptop was almost louder than the music at points.

05:57 S?: Doug Bott was the first person to work with Charlotte to create music.

06:01 DB: Sitting on the table we have, what we call a ‘magic arm’, it’s a piece of equipment which can fix any piece of technology in just about any position around a person’s body and attached by Velcro to this arm is a fairly and spectacular-looking back rectangular box, which is a magnetic motion sensor. So, it emits a small magnetic field and you can assign pretty much anything that you want to that magnetic field. So, in Charlotte’s case, we assigned about seven or eight notes to it and she was able to make very small head movements in order to play those musical notes. Then she had one switch, very small switch, on each thumb. One the switches did a very simple task which was to turn the sound that she was playing on and off, so that if she wanted to move her head without playing music, she could.

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07:01 DB: The other switch controlled with her other thumb changed the configuration of notes available to her on the motion sensor that she was playing with her head. So, it’s… Liken this to playing a guitar, it’s as if the right hand that a guitarist would normally use to finger pick the notes, to pick out the individual notes, this is as if the right hand was her head moving in and out of the motion sensor to pick the notes. And then the guitarist’s left hand, which changes the cord shapes on the thread board of the guitar, the role of the left hand was taken by the switch that Charlotte was using to change the configuration of notes available to be played by her head.

07:42 JD: What was your first impression of Charlotte?

07:45 DB: My first impressions, somebody who was interested in classical music which not many of the young people I was working with at the time were. Somebody who is interested very much in working on her own in her own way. So yeah, the early sessions were very much about finding out what she was interested in and also how physically and practically she was going to create music, perform it, learn about it, compose it.

08:20 JD: At what point did you think she has got something special?

08:28 DB: I think it was just before, a few weeks before the first time she actually performed in public. I’ve been very careful not to put too much pressure on her to move forward and to achieve. I was very happy for her to go at her own pace. But she knew there was a concert coming up in school and she announced that she wanted to be a part of that, that she wanted to perform in it. Given the rate at which we had been working in the previous months, I was a bit nervous because I didn’t really think that she would be able to get the piece together in time to be able to perform it, but she did. She really knuckled down and applied herself and practised an awful lot outside of our sessions, which was quite a thing because the equipment that she was using at the time, I wasn’t able to leave it in school. So, when she was practising by herself, she was doing it entirely in her own head and making the movements from memory without the equipment. So, yeah that’s when I realized she has something special because the music it was in her head.


09:47 CW: That was very scary. I was outside waiting to go on. Like, “No, no, no, no. I’m not gonna do this.” And Doug was like, “Yes, yes, you are.” Like, “No I’m not.” He was like, “Just calm down and relax. If you don’t wanna do it, you don’t have to.” I was like, “You are not meant to say that.” [laughter] And eventually I got on the stage and Doug came on with me because I wanted him there, and I performed in front of everyone and I got really shaky and nervous as I had never performed in front of people before then. And it went reasonably well, I think, and piece came out maybe a bit too fast, but it went well enough. Everyone seemed to enjoy it and quite a few people were surprised I think.

10:29 JD: Did you have family and friends in the audience?

10:31 CW: My aunt was there and my mum.

10:35 S?: And for Charlotte’s mum, Tessa, seeing her daughter’s transformation was nothing short of remarkable.

10:41 Speaker 4: It was fantastic and she is really very good. She had been through such a rotten time and it just gave her something that she could achieve, and it was just wonderful as a mother to see her doing so. That’s why I am gonna cry.


11:00 S4: [11:01] ____. [laughter] It gave her something which she could achieve and be successful at. And as a parent, it was just wonderful to see that the determination she had actually was successful and she was good at it. It was very good.


11:24 JD: Has the music changed Charlotte’s life?

11:29 S4: I think it was the achievement of being able to play performing in front of people was I think was incredibly nerve wrecking for Charlotte, so the fact that she managed to do it gave her a little confidence which I think also then helped in other spheres of her life, so academically and probably socially as well. And I do think its helped her realize that she can achieve anything she wants to if she puts her mind to it.

11:56 JD: Relative to your memories of playing the piano, playing music in this way, does it feel similar if that makes any sense?

12:06 CW: I think it was very different. I practised a lot. I don’t really remember practising much when I played the piano. I enjoyed it. I wanted to achieve at it because it made people see me as a person rather than a disabled person who they made presumptions about.

12:21 DB: First I heard about Charlotte when Jonathan Westrup from Drake posted a video clip of Charlotte playing on the teaching music website.

12:29 S?: David Ashworth is a freelance educational consultant who specializes in music and technology.

12:34 David Ashworth: The performance was significant because… Well there were two things. One was it showed someone who obviously had severe disabilities, but who was actually able to overcome those to play a standard piece of repertoire and I’d never seen that before.

12:48 JD: How did it compare in relation to say a traditional cellist?

12:53 DA: Well that’s interesting. If you were to listen just the audio, you would find Charlotte’s performance is wanting. The quality of the sound, the phrasing, the timing that you get with a professional musician playing the real cello, all the expressive qualities is in a league of its own. Then you hear… You hear what Charlotte’s doing and its nowhere near the same level. However when you watch a video clip and see what she’s doing, it then becomes very powerful. It makes you realize that actually music is more about listening. It’s more about the whole contextual thing if you like and not just me, but other commentators who’ve been on the website, seen the clip and left comments, have found its a deeply moving experience hearing someone play a piece of Bach in that way.

13:36 JD: There is an argument that Charlotte’s performance is akin to being given a keyboard with only the right notes on it. How would you react to that?

13:43 DA: That’s an interesting one. In fact there are conventional instruments if you like only have the right notes, but in fact its a bigger thing than that. I think right notes is only part of the picture. We tend to get obsessed with people playing the right notes. The pictures of a note becomes all important, but there’s far more to music than the actual pictures of the notes that you play. And what was so interesting about Charlotte’s performance was that you could see, you could witness, the mental and the physical engagement, and also the musical engagement as well and… Well the spiritual engagement if you like and that was the powerful thing to me. So just to reduce music to a conversation about how you access the right pitches as a note is only part of the picture. You look at that clip of Charlotte and what’s really… The most powerful bit for me is at right at the end when she stops playing, there is a moment’s pause, and then she breaks into a big broad grin. And you know, she knows she’s made something musically significant, that she’s achieved something musically significant there.


15:01 DB: The principle behind the way that we use assistive music technology is almost the opposite to a conventional musical instrument. So with a conventional musical instrument, the instrument itself is fixed and the musician has to master that instrument and has to almost subordinate themselves to the demands of that instrument. Whereas what assistive music technology does is to take a person and their particular interests, their physical needs, and create a musical instrument, a way of playing music which is absolutely right for that person. Not just physically and musically, but also in terms of ensuring that there’s an appropriate challenge.

15:45 JD: Where does the technology end and the skill of the musician begin?

15:51 DB: That’s quite a difficult question to answer. It completely depends upon the individual musician, but I could probably answer that in terms of conventional musical instruments. If you take a piano for example there are all kinds of elements of a piano, which are already assistive. The keys are ordered on the keyboard from low to high. They’re tuned according to a convention, equal temperament. They’re tuned to concert pitch. I dare say that if you went into a music exam having prepared all your piano pieces and the examiner was to tell you, “Oh by the way, today in order to test you a little bit further we’ve rearranged all of the notes on the piano keyboard and retuned it, but if you’re a good pianist then you should be able to handle that.” That gives maybe some kind of an impression. All musical instruments are assistive in some way because they are set up in a certain way. The difference with assistive music technology is that it varies from person-to-person.

16:50 Jonathan Westrup: It’s set up so the sound starts working about there, so that distance. You can change the distance at which it starts actually triggering. You can make it trigger from here onwards, so you can do something quite big or you can do something very small. So as I’m pulling away from the device, [music] and as I move my hand further away, [music] it plays up the scale.


17:13 S?: Jonathan Westrup from Drake Music demonstrated some of the technology they use at St. Rose’s School in Stroud.

17:21 JW: The actual device itself looks like a small red torch and it emits an invisible beam and when you break the beam with any part of your body or whatever, it will trigger sound and you can set up what that sound is. At the moment we’ve got a cello here which we could just play a little bit. I’m just moving my hand now in front of it, [music] so you can hear now that’s the scale. [music] The student’s got a very wide motion. For example, if they can swing their left arm you know that’s a big movement they’ve got, then it could still pick up the sound rather than the small fine motors movements, which other students might want to use in different equipment, but that’s quite good for big movements. It does take as much time to master as any other instrument really. Because then, like you finding, you need to kind of find… [music] Try to find a little riff there. [music] I’m not a master, by any means.

18:19 S?: Aileen [18:20] ____ runs music classes for disabled students in the Norwegian city of Tromso. Their Arctic winters are long and dark. And in January, the city celebrates the end of the polar nights with a large cultural festival. Having seen Charlotte perform, Aileen invited her to compose music for the festival.

18:38 Speaker 7: It’s the darkest period in Tromso when we have no sun. It’s also a way of making life to the city, having a big music festival with musicians coming from all over the world. It’s all kinds of music being performed there. From big symphony orchestras to small jazz ensembles, and rock bands in the evenings. So its a very diverse music festival.

19:03 JD: And can you describe how her compositions were performed?

19:07 S7: Before the performance, it was quite a long project with months of her composing and sending files to Norway, speaking on phone about what we wanted with the music and how it should fit with the dancers. Charlotte was also very clear on… She wanted acoustic instruments. So we had musicians from the symphony orchestra of Tromso to do a recording of her music. [music] The performance at the Northern Lights Music Festival was outdoor in minus 10. [music] This was in the town square of Tromso and it was packed with people around there, and the scene was made up by ice and snow sculptures. And they had proper lighting and dancers dancing to the music. So it was quite magic to hear the music in that setting.


20:24 CW: I really wanted to pursue grades, I wanted to pursue music at college, but unfortunately establishments who grade musicians wouldn’t recognize it. Examining boards wouldn’t recognize it, and therefore, I couldn’t progress.

20:39 JD: Do you understand why they won’t recognize it? Do you think that’s fair?

20:42 CW: They’re very traditional in the way they recognize any examination. And therefore, the way the Drake Music and students play music is very different. And they either need to set up an examination which can be qualified at the same level, which is specifically for music technology of any to accept it. We’re meant to be in an equal society, therefore everyone should be equally graded.

21:07 S?: Charlotte’s achievements were recognized when she received a Bronze Arts award from Trinity College, London. In a statement, Trinity College go on to say, “Although there is no specific campaign to encourage the use of assistive technology, we have taken great interest in Charlotte’s achievement and profiled her story both on our website and in other print materials and press articles. We hope that this has actively encouraged others working with assistive technology, to see how Arts award could work for them.” The music examining boards are consistent in their approach, in as far as they don’t accredit music performed electronically, but as Doug Bott explains, its early days.

21:47 DB: If Charlotte had come to us in 20 years’ time, then I would fully expect that she would have been able to have had her achievements accredited either through the formal school music curriculum or through instrumental exams. Whether that’s through the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music or anyone else. At the moment, its very new territory for everybody I think. There are young disabled people who have their achievements accredited in various ways. But one issue, which I think people tend to shy away from talking about and which I’m quite happy to talk about, is that there’s a very big issue around the nature of people’s different disabilities. So differently disabled people access music in different ways and some of those means of access, whether its through Braille music or whether its through British sign language, some of those means of access are perhaps more able to slot in to the existing accreditation frameworks. Other forms of access, for example assistive music technology which is particularly useful for people who face physical barriers to music, these means of access haven’t really been tried and tested yet.

23:07 DB: We’re talking, a fair bit at the moment, to the Associated Board and they’re quite open about the fact that currently they don’t accredit any kind of music produced electronically, let alone the kind of assistive technology that our students are using, but they’re very keen to engage with these kinds of developments. And what we’re currently in the very early stages of discussing with them and also colleagues at Bath Spa University, are ways that you can accredit the quality of a musical performance in such a way that its not necessarily linked to the particular instrument that a person is playing. But what we’re arguing for is something which, to play devil’s advocate, takes it even further and says, “Okay, but what if you were to turn up to a piano exam to play the piano repertoire and you would say actually I’m not going to play on the piano today, I’m gonna to play on a flute.” How would you examine that? Because that really is what we are dealing with. We’re dealing with people who are playing instruments which are unique to them and maybe they’re not even playing repertoire. Maybe they’re playing music which they themselves have created.

24:18 S?: And for music consultant, David Ashworth, Charlotte’s performance could be just the beginning.

24:23 DA: I’ve been working in special schools where I’ve seen young people making music using assistive technology and its always tended to be making music in its own terms and its own style, if you like. A lot of improvisation. And a lot of fairly cutting edge avant-garde sort of sounds, if you like. What makes Charlotte different is she was actually playing crotchet and quavers. She was playing the dots, if you like. She was playing a mainstream piece of music which we normally associate as being accessed by, if you like, a mainstream musician. And that was what was different. She actually had the audacity, if you like, to actually step into their world, and that was what made it so significant I think. Where Charlotte has been important, she’s been a catalyst if you like to get this debate really going, and I’m sure she will see it in that way and feel rightly proud of that achievement.


25:25 S?: Charlotte White chose to pursue her academic studies and gained a place at university studying social policy and criminology. Advancements in the availability and price of software though, means she may soon return to music. And for Doug Bott, that moment can’t come soon enough.

25:41 DB: As a composer, she was very instinctive. She’s extraordinary in terms of the fact that she has a really innate musical ability. I think that any music teacher or music educator who would come across her, whether she was a disabled person or not, would find her to be an outstanding student in terms of the way that she engages with learning, practising, and performing musical instruments. And in terms of the way that she engages with composition and the fact that it really comes from inside her rather than from her understanding of the rules of music.

26:27 CW: Music inspired me in the belief that I could achieve anything and a new belief in myself, which had pretty much gone for the most part, and that belief became sort of lit in every part of my life. It became lit like my physiotherapy and my occupational therapy, and my speech therapy. I became more enthusiastic and had much more of a drive to achieve, which I had slightly lost before then, and I did start achieving in all those areas much more than I had done. And wanting to break the barriers and do the same things as everyone else was rather than thus been bracketed as a disabled person who wouldn’t achieve.

27:12 CW: I’ve got ambition back of what I want to achieve in the future and then complete in the long run. I started to enjoy life as well and have fun, and start experiencing things that the average teenager does.

27:29 S?: Charlotte White’s musical flight was presented by Josie D’Arby and produced in Bristol by Toby Field. All the music in the program was either composed or performed by Charlotte.




I am MD of Trabasack, an award winning company I co-founded 3 years ago. Trabasack is a lap tray and bag that is useful for everyone providing a level work and play surface wherever you need one.

Trabasack also promotes social inclusion for people with disabilities and because of its 'Design for All' accessibility, I won a Level 2 Award from UnLtd the charity for social entrepreneurs.

I am a dad of two and carer for my son with Dravet Syndrome. Interests include disability advocacy, accessible gaming, social media for business, cider making and neglecting an allotment. Connect with me on Google+

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2 Responses

  1. Janis says:

    A fascinating and frustrating story. We forget that all musical instruments are in the end assistive technology. I’m sure there is a way to track and grade these kinds of instruments; regardless, there NEEDS to be a way in order to facilitate the training of disabled composers. Humanity as a whole misses out tremendously by not having these voices added to the musical mix. I don’t want to hear only music written by able-bodied people any more than I want to hear only music written by white males.

    As for an instrument that would be well-suited to White’s situation, has she ever tried a hand horn? That seems like it might be a perfect fit, if she has the air and support to play brass. Maybe the pTrumpet folks can mock up a plastic natural horn so it doesn’t weigh so much. Even if they can’t, I’m sure a stand can be used, or she can hold it in her lap. Most orchestra musicians play seated anyhow.

  2. Rachel says:

    Hi Janis,

    At The OHMI trust ( we are working on this. We agree with you and are working, through an annual competition, to find and develop instruments with undifferentiated participation for those with a physical disability (specifically in our case those who only have one functioning hand, but the principles may be transferable to other disabilities). It is vital that instruments entered into our competition have the potential for virtuosity in the same way that all traditional instruments do. Please take a look at our website and get in touch if you want to know more!

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