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Interactive Piano Changes the Sound of Music

2/27/2013, 12:17 p.m.

A senior who attends Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest played a chord of melodies on a keyboard one recent Wednesday morning at school. He sways as his body's enveloped by the sounds reverberating around him. He squeezes his eyes while his fingers glide across the ivory keys. He doesn't look at the musical composition because he's mesmerized by an interactive piano.

"I love playing this piano," said Julian Spires, 18, of Northwest, who's headed to Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa., to study jazz composition this fall. "You can feel everything on it." He refuses to play any other piano in Ellington's halls.

The principal agreed.

"It's the most popular piano at the school. The kids fell in love with it," said Rory Pullens, head of the school since 2006. "The Shadd has become a talking point for our visitors enamored by the historic and progressive piano in our lobby. It's taken on a life of its own."

The hybrid interactive piano sits in Ellington's main hall at Pullens' suggestion to the inventor, Warren M. Shadd, a native Washingtonian and child prodigy who played drums in his first jazz concert at the age of four. It should have been at Ellington for a week or two. Instead, it's been there more than 18 months.

Music lovers like Spires led Shadd, a second-generation piano technician and inventor, to leave it at the school. Time froze the moment Spires, an African American, played on the first piano created and manufactured by an African American during Black History Month.

"This isn't about me, it's bigger than me," said Shadd, in his 50s and who lives in Forestville, Md. "It's representing something positive. It represents perseverance and creativity made into reality."

The interactive piano is an acoustic one with modern tools to help musicians compose, edit or teach. It features computer technologies such as a touch screen, keyboard and scanner; a four-way video camera; self-teaching and music page-turning software; and high-end surround sound speakers. Also, the "Carresser" bench is equipped with speakers to increase the vibrations, which could be useful to those with disabilities, said Dr. Phillip Pearl.

"It's marvelous and offers special features to assist persons with vision loss, (who can read music by Braille), hearing loss, including special vibratory seating (to) feel the vibrations of the music's frequencies," said Pearl, chief of the Child Neurology division at Children's National Medical Center in Northwest, "and autism, including distance teaching where the teacher can be anywhere ... for those with less comfort with a physically proximate teacher, or ... special educators in regions remote to them."

A professor of pediatrics, neurology and music at The George Washington University School of Medicine and the Columbia College of Arts and Science in Northwest, Pearl worked with Shadd on a manuscript that detailed the "technical changes that augment the use of the piano to assist individuals with neurodevelopmental disabilities." Autistic children and patients with Alzheimer's - people who've lost their verbal skills - still have their musical language. .