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Let the music play: Students, staff adapt tuba to help local musician

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A group of MSU engineering students, campus upholsterer Rich Yarch, and a creative idea came together in a project that has a local tuba-playing pastor playing a new tune.

It all started with the College of Engineering’s Design Day. Engineering students Raymond Gallagher, Daniel Isaac, Zachary Kaltz and Matthew Ryerkerk had an idea to design a way for Richard Moe to continue to play his instrument. Moe is the pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in East Lansing and has been a tuba player for more than 40 years. Spinal muscular atrophy has been slowly impairing the use of Moe’s hand and made it difficult for him to hold the tuba and push the buttons to play. Reluctantly, he stopped playing. The students and Moe got together and the idea was set in motion.

First, the brass musical instrument needed to be augmented so that it could be operated with minimal finger strength. The students designed a lightweight system to provide rapid and relatively silent actuation of the valves with low force input.

Secondly, the students needed to create a support cushion that would both cradle the tuba, keeping it from falling off Moe’s wheelchair, and position it at the proper height so Moe wouldn’t have to hold the instrument up himself. As soon as the students developed a prototype they searched for an upholsterer to materialize the design. They found Rich Yarch in the Construction, Maintenance and Interior Design Shop at MSU, who was the final key they needed.

They showed their prototype to Yarch and asked if he could replicate what they had made. Yarch knew he could not only replicate the design, he could improve on it. He created a smoothly shaped cushion out of upholstery foam and then designed a vinyl cover, sewed on straps and buckles to secure the tuba, and attached grippers on the bottom to keep the pad from slipping. Happy with the result, the students took it to Moe for testing. A problem with the design soon brought the students back to see Yarch. The cushion was a couple of inches too tall, placing the tuba’s mouthpiece out of reach. As soon as Yarch reformatted the cushion to the proper height, the project was complete.

Moe is once again playing the instrument he has enjoyed for more than four decades. He has rejoined his fellow musicians in the MSU Community Music School New Horizons Band.

The students presented their project at Design Day last April. Timothy Hinds, a specialist in mechanical engineering, was their faculty advisor.

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