Technology: Engineering Students Help
Perform to His Fullest
BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS – MARCH 29, 2013 – Ever since
27-year-old Juan Torres was a little boy watching piano performances on
television or listening to piano music on the radio, he has been captivated by
the complexity and beauty of the piano.
of a Pianist
At age 15, while a freshman at Brownsville’s Lopez High School, Torres
attended a live piano performance for the first time.
“I had only ever heard people playing on the TV at that point, but in
person, that was my first time,” Torres said. “I was so impressed by that
pianist. I wanted to play like that person. It motivated me to
“Before long, I missed the music,” Torres said. “I started studying the
piano again and began looking at music more seriously, as a
However, due to his physical limitation of having been born without the
use of his legs, Torres was unable to advance to more sophisticated compositions
that required using the piano pedals.
“The pedal really became essential in the 19th century with composers
like Chopin, Liszt and Schumann,” said Torres’s piano instructor, Dr. Kenneth
Saxon, Assistant Professor in the Department of
Music. “With the exception of some pieces by earlier composers
– such as Bach, Mozart, and sometimes Beethoven – that could be performed
without the pedal, Juan was generally limited to performing piano music written
prior to the 19th century.”
A Possible Solution
Over their years of working together, Saxon researched possible
solutions to accommodate Torres to use the pedal.
The first breakthrough
in this dilemma involved a breath-controlled switch created by Beneficial
Designs, an assistive and adaptive technology company. This device had two major
downsides: it could be used only on an electronic piano and required tremendous
effort and lung capacity.
In the fall of 2010, Berg introduced Saxon’s request as a potential
freshman volunteer project for his Introduction to Engineering class. Funding
for the project came from the Guettler/Guerra
Fund, an endowment for the College of Science, Mathematics and
Michael Espinoza, a 20-year old junior bioengineering major, along with
several classmates, chose to tackle the problem.
Currently, the team of engineers working on the project consists of
Fernando Cavasos, Albert Morales, Matthew Olivarez and Alan Ruiz, with Espinoza
still the team leader, and all under the watchful eye of Berg.
“It’s been a long process because we do this on our own time,” Espinoza
said. “When we don’t have work or class, we’re working on this. It’s been a good
project, and I’m glad that we have reached this point.”
The fruit of their labor is a device that is positioned over the pedals
and is controlled by a “bite-switch,” donated by Conceptus,
Inc., held in place by a headset, allowing Torres to have
command of the piano pedals.
“I first used the prototype a year or so ago,” Torres said. “Through
all this time they have been fixing little details, tweaking, until now it’s
almost perfect. I felt happy because I was going to be able to use the pedal
Saxon thinks Torres’ true potential can now finally be
is a great pianist without the pedal,” Saxon said. “But with it, I really expect
him to soar.”
Juan Torres plays piano with the help of a pedal device
that he controls through a bite switch.
In Concert with
“Both he and the machine performed excellently [at that concert],” Berg
Torres said he is now ready to comfortably perform a full concert,
scheduled for Thursday, April 4 at The Arts Center. His selections
include pieces by Chopin, Mozart and Ástor Piazzolla.
“I’m looking forward to performing, and everyone is invited to the
concert to share this experience with me,” Torres said. “I’m very
grateful Dr. Saxon and the engineers had this idea because I never thought that
someday I was going to be able to use the pedal.”
Berg, Espinoza and the engineering department that
helped with the device will be recognized for their hard work at the
“People will be able to see and hear Juan’s inspiring playing and the
incredible work of our engineering students,” Saxon said.
The Future is Open
“I am eager to play more difficult pieces, more piano concertos, by
difficult composers,” Torres said. “I’m looking forward to working on so
Torres will graduate this Winter Commencement with his degree in music
education. He is also considering graduate school to pursue his master’s degree
in piano performance.
“I want to be a teacher in the future, and I also really want to be a
piano performer,” Torres said.
“I want to perform in different parts of the
world. That’s my goal.”
Torres’ concert will be at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 4 in The
Arts Center. Following his solo piano selections, he will be joined by a
26-member chamber orchestra to perform Mozart’s Piano
Concerto No. 21 in C major.
The concert is free and open to the public.