Engineering students’ device helps pianist expand repertoire - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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Engineering students’ device helps pianist expand repertoire

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Posted: Monday, April 1, 2013 10:55 pm

For more than two years, a group of engineering students at the University of Texas at Brownsville worked to construct a device that would allow senior student Juan Torres to use the pedals on the piano.

It might seem a long time to wait, but Torres said it wasn’t. The time and effort taken to improve the device, through three stages of prototypes, was more than he expected.

“For me, it was fast,” Torres said. “I never thought that something could be built. I thought it was impossible.”

The 27-year-old student, who was born without the use of his legs, has been playing piano since he was 15. He was intrigued by the sound when he heard someone playing it at his church, and as a high school student he spent hours practicing.

Only until recently, with the use of the device, has Torres been able to play more complicated pieces that require the use of foot pedals. The pedals elongate notes and help serve as a foundation for the music, Torres said.

“I only played pieces that didn’t require much pedal, like Mozart, Bach, a little bit of Beethoven,” Torres said.

Musical pieces by his favorite composers, such as Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt, were untouchable, Torres said.

“I always wanted to play them, but I never thought I could play it until Dr. Saxon, my professor, came up with this idea,” Torres said.

A professor who cares

On a recent afternoon last week Torres took to his music professor’s cluttered office to practice on the piano in anticipation of his recital Thursday.

With some trial and error, UTB Associate Professor of Music Kenneth Saxon set up the device in his office, admitting it was the first time he went through the steps without the engineering students.

The device pushes down on the damper pedal, the right-most of a piano’s three pedals, whenever Torres bites down on a switch that wirelessly transmits to the apparatus. The bite switch is attached to headphones that Torres wears throughout the performance.

It was Saxon’s idea to try to find a way to facilitate Torres’ playing. Saxon said he saw how committed Torres was to the piano and he wanted to try to give him the option of increasing his repertoire.

“He’s an excellent pianist without the pedal,” Saxon said. “There’s so much piano music that needs the pedal.”

Unwilling to take credit for the project, Saxon said without the time, skills and effort of those in the engineering department his idea would never have come to fruition.

“These guys have formed something very special,” Saxon said.

‘It started with a letter’

In fall 2010, when Michael Espinoza was a freshman, William Berg, associate professor and chair of the engineering department, approached the freshman class with the challenge of inventing a device to help Torres.

“It started with a letter from Dr. Saxon from the music department,” Berg said. “He asked if we had any mechanical engineering skills to put something together to help Juan Torres.”

And the Piano Group was born.

Initially the group had five to 10 students who seized on the opportunity, but the project has been a revolving door of students who have come and gone, Berg said.

Espinoza, a 20-year-old in the department has worked on it from the beginning.

“I was all up for it,” Espinoza said about the project.

“This one sounded like it had the most, just for me, had the most creative freedom,” the UTB junior said. “You really had to brainstorm and come up with solutions that we didn’t even know at the time.”

Espinoza said the project was a study in “persistence” and “stubbornness.”

“We learned a lot. We made a lot of mistakes,” said Espinoza, a bio-engineering major. “The way we learn is by breaking things and burning electronics. If it doesn’t work, let’s find out what does.”

The project was funded by the Guettler/Guerra Fund, an endowment for theCollegeofScience, Mathematics and Technology, and in total throughout the process 15 students have contributed to it, Berg said.

Espinoza is going to take on the project once more during his senior year when he attempts to either try to add a way Torres can use the other pedals or to find a way that Torres can set it up on his own on any piano, he said.

The young engineer said one of the biggest motivations for him and his team members was knowing their project would help someone.

“When we are busting our heads over these tests that are driving us crazy, we stay with it,” he said. “The students who do stay in engineering, we know we do want to help people out.”


Torres will perform with the device Thursday at theUTB-TSCArtsCenter.

He said he is always nervous before a performance, but once he begins playing he focuses on the music and the anxiety disappears.

“I always demonstrate what I feel through music,” Torres said. “People that see me perform, they are going to see that and feel that I am a really happy person.”

He said he hopes people who watch him perform some of his favorite music, will feel like anything is possible, too.

Saxon, who will be presenting Torres during the concert on Thursday, said he’s nervous, too.

The project is near to Saxon’s heart, and he was happy to learn that Torres is excited for the chance to play some of his favorite composers.

“I wanted him to have that experience and it was one of those things that I thought of for a while before we took it on,” Saxon said. “Once it got started, it took on a life of its own.”


What: Juan Torres piano recital.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 4

Where: UTB-TSC The Arts Center

Cost: Free

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