Minnesota made music app strikes the right chord in ALS community

Composing music from the comfort of her couch is quite a change for Lisa Lind.

"It’s something I can do that's fun because there are so many things I can no longer do," says Lind.

Instead of an app on her iPad, Lind used to play the French horn and piano in symphonies. She received her master’s degree from the prestigious music school, Julliard. However, more recently, while playing the piano at home, she noticed something was wrong.

"About a year and a half ago I was having trouble playing scales and stretching my hands far enough to play cords, and that was really weird. And then I started having trouble lifting things with my arms," said Lind.

Lind was diagnosed with ALS, the progressive disease that attacks muscles in a person's body.

"It takes away a person's ability to talk, and eventually breathe," says Liz Stanley of the Minnesota ALS Association.  "The life expectancy is two to five years, and there is currently no cure."

"I’ve had a lot of different things happen in life, so I’ve learned how to make lemonade out of lemons.," says Lind. "It might hit me at some point, but I’m actually having a really good time."

Lind credits her focus on the positive, in large part, to the classes she regularly takes through Creative Pursuits, a new program offered by the ALS Association. Plus, around the same time the classes started last fall, Michael Cain, musician and professor at MacPhail Center for Music, was launching his Ekwe app, which he and his partners have been working on for years. It allows anyone from amateur to professional musicians to compose their own music.

"The idea that, as a beginner, make and create their own music, as opposed to ‘Oh, you want to make your own music? Study the instrument for 12 years, develop technique, learn the theory, and then at the end we’ll let you play.’ We want to flip that," said Cain. 

More than three decades in the music industry, working with artists from Missy Elliot to Bobby McFerrin, Cain and his team pulled together more than 50 musicians and traveled to Germany, West Africa, New York and Los Angeles to record each note for the app from more than 150 different instruments. 

From young users playing around to professional composing, Ekwe offers musicians a chance to create, share, and record. Users also learn about instruments from every corner of the planet. 

Cain says what makes Ekwe unique from other apps is the chance to read and teach about the instruments being played. Plus, the ease of a phone or iPad touch screen also led to a successful regional pilot program with the ALS Association.  Now both Creative Pursuits Zoom classes and the Ekwe App are being made available for free to anyone living with ALS nationwide.

"I can share via email a composition I’ve created, and that person can also go in there on the same thing, tweak it, and we can create something together," said Lind.

"The fact Ekwe is in some ways a success for people that are in some cases losing the ability to use their hands is incredibly gratifying," says Cain.

Stanley says this is all part of fulfilling the vision of the late Ken Baltes. Before passing away from ALS, Baltes set out to improve the lives of those impacted by the disease in any way possible.

"His goal was to bring creative opportunity to all people living with ALS, so they can live a full life even as the disease progresses," said Stanely.

For Lind, that goal becoming her reality hits just the right note.

"Because I’m not terribly ill yet, it’s pretty fun," Lind said.

For more information about a free concert featuring the Ekwe App, click here. It's on March 23 at 7 p.m. at the MacPhail Center for Music, 501 S 2nd St. Minneapolis.

For more information about Creative Pursuits classes offered by the ALS Association, click here.