University of Ottawa student wins $35K KUN Prize for designing ergonomic clarinet

Robert Hunter has won the KUN Prize.

The winner of the National 3D Printed Musical Instrument Challenge is a uOttawa PhD student with a penchant for the clarinet. 

Robert Hunter has redesigned the woodwind instrument to make it more ergonomically friendly to players by using a brace to shift the weight to larger muscle groups.

He received his award worth $35,000 on Thursday evening at an Ottawa Symphony Orchestra Open House at Dominion Chalmers.

In an interview Hunter described his “new” clarinet.

“The instrument has a brace that sits on the forearm and connects to the instrument on a ball joint.” The joint also for a more fluid movement on the instrument’s keys.”

Hunter had played clarinet and had noticed  a soreness that developed on a tendon that connected his right thumb to his wrist and forearm when he would practice for a long period of time.

When he heard about the challenge he remembered that pain and found after some research that it is a widespread issue confronting clarinetists.

The issue confronting the thumb is that there is a static weight resting in one place for a long period of time.

“Your thumb is not supposed to bear weight,” he said. The brace then transfers the weight to the arms which are more robust.

Hunter, who is originally from Georgetown, Ontario, is a biomedical engineering graduate student who is interested in applied science and engineering solutions to problems such as this one. He studied music for a long time and a youth playing piano first and them clarinet for about four years. He even considered pursuing a music education.

But his passion for “making stuff” took over. “This is why I have done this. I love making stuff.”

He is hopeful that someday this creation may benefit clarinetists suffering from thumb pain. He says he’s working on a design that would allow the brace to be retro-fitted to clarinets not manufactured with one in the first place. It changed the design slightly. The instrument uses a normal clarinet mouthpiece and reed.

The project will produce a slightly different key structure for the clarinet. Because the brace eliminates the need to rest the instrument on the right thumb, it is now free to be used to play. So Hunter has designed a tone hole that can be covered by the thumb and he says it has made playing the instrument simpler.

“It actually reduces the amount of cross-fingerings and makes playing more linear. I modified it to make it simpler.”

The prize means Hunter will be collaborating with the technicians operating the 3D printers at a firm called Axis Prototypes in Montreal who will be building his machine.

“When I did the first prototype myself at the university, it took more than 30 hours to print. It’s really neat to watch for about five minutes and then it gets really boring.”

As for the future? “I would love to see this out in the world. I think this has legs. I want to show it to some more clarinetists besides just me and see how they like it and maybe tweak it.”

The National 3D Printed Musical Instrument Challenge was established by the OSO and a network of private, public, academic and non-profit entities called Canada Makes. It wanted potential winners to improve or design an ergonomic musical instrument using 3D printing to make the device.

A rendering of Robert Hunter’s ergonomic clarinet.

The hope is that these designs would help limit what is considered an epidemic of performance related injuries among professional musicians and music students.

“While music lifts the soul, many musicians – professionals and amateurs alike — struggle to perform due to injury. This challenge was an invitation to designers to employ new technology to the benefit of musician’s health,” said the OSO’s music director Alain Trudel.

Hunter received the KUN Prize which includes a fabrication and fitting budget, a five minute piece of music commissioned for the instrument, performance of the instrument at the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra’s 3D StringTheory concert on Nov. 4 and $5,000.

For more information about the 3D instrument project please see:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.