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One handed woodwind musicians

by Megumi Kajigaya
University of Nebraska at Kearney

This article incorporates Dr. Nabb's story first published in The Spotlight Summer 2004 and reproduced with permission from the author.

Adapted musical instruments for people with disability

In 2006, I decided to leave my home in Japan and go to the US to study at UNK (University of Nebraska at Kearney). At the beginning of my university experience, I studied Athletic Training, a course of study in which trainers learn to provide prevention and treatment for an athlete's injury and illness. Studying Athletic Training was a good experience and I was excited to study the human body and human health. However, as I continued to study, I started to wonder if there was a way in which one can combine knowledge of Athletic Training with music.

As a young girl, I was interested in the use of music because I played the clarinet in junior high school. I simply loved music. I struggled to find a viable way to use the experience gained in Athletic Training as well as in music. Eventually, I found the most effective combination of my two interests was in the field of music therapy.

After I made up my mind to change my career path to music therapy, I went to talk to Dr. Nabb, a woodwinds professor in UNK's music department. His career has been unique. Nine years ago he had a massive stroke and one side of his body became paralyzed. After his rehabilitation, he designed and built a one-handed saxophone with a repair shop owner and returned to his teaching job.

David Nabb

Dr. Nabb's story was published in The Spotlight Summer 2004 1, an information bulletin for performing artists provided by VSA arts. He said "It took me 30 years to learn how to play the saxophone with two hands. It's going to take more than two years to learn how to play it with one." He had been avidly playing the saxophone since he was in the 5th grade. As an adult, he became a professional, playing in bands and teaching at the University of Nebraska. Following his stroke his entire left side was paralyzed and he thought his career was over. Then, in recovery, he heard about a one-handed saxophone. With his longtime sax repairman, Jeff Stelling, he went about acquiring one. Stelling is a perfectionist, so he insisted that they not "cobble something together". Instead he went about building a one-handed sax from the ground up.

On a saxophone, every finger is dedicated to a key. Dr. Nabb and Stelling needed to create a key that would perform the functions of the left and right key. So they devised a toggle switch that flips left, right, or stays neutral to play both keys. With the toggle, a sax can be played with one hand.

"It takes some practice. It's a whole different technique". The hardest part of playing it is conceptualizing the fingering while practicing. It requires more forethought for the player, at least in the early stages. However, being able to play again is "absolutely the greatest," he said "It's the most terrific satisfaction. It's what my whole life has been about. Before I had the one-handed sax, it was life now and life before. But thismhas allowed me to tie my life back together again."

Dr Nabb credits the perfectionism and brilliance of his friend Jeff Stelling for the excellence of the instrument. Stelling took a cheap student horn apart and started from scratch. The sound had not changed, because the moving parts don't affect the "tube". Once they successfully created a one-handed sax, Yamaha donated parts to make another one. The original prototype one-handed sax has been donated to a teenage boy in South Carolina who lost his arm in a plane crash.

This personal experience was what motivated Dr. Nabb and Stelling to start the University of Nebraska Kearney (UNK) One-Hander Woodwind Program, to make one-handed woodwind instruments for people with disability. Yamaha has agreed to donate the parts for future instruments. The program has also set up an international forum on musical instruments adapted for persons with disabilities that is a great online resource.

Although I changed my major and started thinking of a career as a music therapist, I did not know about the clinical practices involved in music therapy and I had never even met a music therapist. UNK does not have a degree program for music therapy, and Dr. Nabb gave me advice and tried to help me enhance my knowledge of the field. I made contacts with some professors teaching music therapy in graduate schools. As I continued making contact with various professors, I had a fruitful meeting with Dr. Davis, Colorado State University Music Therapy Professor, and Dr. Ropp, Illinois State University Music Therapy Professor, at the American Music Therapy Association conference at which we discussed music therapy. Dr. Nabb also provided research experience in the field of Music Therapy. I helped with his one-handed woodwinds program, the mission of which is to increase the availability of adapted musical instruments for people with permanent disabilities.

While Dr. Nabb is a stroke survivor, he is nevertheless an excellent clarinet teacher. As mentioned previously, I played the clarinet for three years in junior high school. Although I played the musical instrument with great enthusiasm, I stopped playing just before entering high school because I developed a small nodule on my lip. My dentist removed the nodule, but it still hurt when I played the clarinet and the dentist told me that, "It may grow back if you continue to play the clarinet." I was scared to play, and because of that fear, have not played for five years. I wanted to play the clarinet and Dr. Nabb advised me to correct my embouchure and just stop playing when it hurt. I was able to sustain for longer periods as I continued to practice, and my skill improved in a very short time despite the five year gap. I am sometimes pleasantly surprised by Dr. Nabb's observation. When he taught me a practice method or gave me advice, I did not believe that the method would really develop my skill. However, as I continued to practice, they really did improve my skill.

I am grateful that I chose to come to the US and met Dr. Nabb who took great interest in encouraging my ambition and career plans in relation to his experience. I believe that he intelligently understood and enabled me to focus in the right direction in order to further my career. I really respect him and appreciate all the help he has given me. I feel I am a very lucky girl to have him as a guide and mentor. Finally, I appreciate Dr. Khan, University of Nebraska at Kearney English Professor, for having been the consultant for this article.


1 David Nabb, Saxophonist, Kearney, Nebraska (pdf) published in The Spotlight, Summer 2004 pages 6-7 by VSA arts. Copy available on the VSA arts website in PDF format only.


Megumi Kajigaya is an international student studying at University of Nebraska-Kearney. She is majoring in Exercise Science with music minor and interested in music therapy. Her work is to help increase the visibility of the One-handed Woodwinds Program founded by Dr. David Nabb.

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