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Music Meets Technology: Engineering Students Help
Pianist 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.
 
 
Juan TorresThe Beginnings 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 learn.”
Torres began studying piano while in high school, and he quickly progressed in his artistry, regularly competing and performing. When he entered The University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College in the fall of 2006, though, he chose to major in another interest, engineering.
 
“Before long, I missed the music,” Torres said. “I started studying the piano again and began looking at music more seriously, as a career.”
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
 
Engineering Students
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.
Saxon then approached Dr. William Berg, Chair of the Engineering Department, hoping Berg’s engineering students might develop a more user-friendly device that would also work on an acoustic piano.
 
Musical Engineers
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 Technology.
 
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 naturally.”
Saxon thinks Torres’ true potential can now finally be realized.
“Juan is a great pianist without the pedal,” Saxon said. “But with it, I really expect him to soar.”
Juan Torres 
Juan Torres plays piano with the help of a pedal device that he controls through a bite switch. 
 
In Concert with the Device
On March 4, Torres made his debut with the new device on stage at The Arts Center as a warm-up act for Saxon’s Patron of the Arts concert.
 
“Both he and the machine performed excellently [at that concert],” Berg said.
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 concert.
“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 much.”
 
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.
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