Injured drummer makes comeback with artificial arm

Injured drummer makes comeback with artificial arm

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KENNESAW, Ga. -

Jason Barnes has been playing drums for years, but this Kennesaw State University concert feels like a new beginning. He says, "It's almost like playing my first show again, you know?"

That's because for the last two and a half years, Jason has struggled to come back from an accident, that nearly killed him.

In January of 2012, he was up on the roof of a McDonough restaurant, holding a pole to clean out a ventilation duct. That's when, he says, "Something spooked me, and I yelled, "Get down." I remember like a pink flash, and like a loud explosion sound."

Jason was electrocuted. He woke up two days later in a hospital bed, with facial burns and a badly-damaged right arm.

After six or seven surgeries, his arm was amputated just below the elbow. That's when it hit him. He says, " I can't play guitar anymore, I can't play piano anymore. Can't play drums anymore, which was most important, because I was playing in a band and everything."

But, he kept pushing. He was fitted for a prosthetic arm, then a special drumstick to play.

It was too stiff, so he tweaked it, and was able to audition for and get into The Atlanta Institute of Music and Media.

That's when his drum teacher - looking for a way to help Jason play better - found Gil Weinberg.

Weinberg is the director of Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology. His passion: creating robotic musicians. He says Jason's teacher asked him, "Can you use some of this technology to help Jason?"

Weinberg got a grant from the National Science Foundation to build Jason a "better" arm.

He says the drumstick he had tweaked was good, "But, drummers use their wrist and fingers a lot for expression, the bounce the grip, he couldn't do that."

So, Weinberg created a device with two sticks. One Jason controls with his forearm muscles, using sensors. He says that gives Jason what he wanted: "Full, direct control with his muscle on one stick, so that he'll be able to play the way he used to."

The second stick was something totally new: a device with a mind of its own. This stick can sense what other musicians play, and then improvise, creating new music. Weinberg says, "Suddenly he feels the same little motif, or musical idea, that he heard from the trumpet, from his colleague, playing from his arm."

Saturday Jason played publicly for the first time, with his new artificial arm. Weinberg told the packed house at Kennesaw State University – this is just the beginning of the work his lab is trying to do. For Jason, it went well. He says, "I'm actually surprised at how well it works, stage one, first stage, first time, first prototype. "

And Jason Barnes can't wait to see - where the music takes him next.

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