Faculty Impact - Dr. David Nabb

Posted: January 31, 2017 12:00:00 AM CST

Dr. David Nabb has been a music professor at UNK for 23 years, teaching music history courses and woodwind lessons. Almost 17 years ago, Dr. Nabb encountered a life-changing experience that left him unable to perform daily tasks, including playing an instrument. In the video below, he shares about his experience and how he overcame those challenges.

Video Transcript

Hi everyone! Lisa here, for the Center for Entrepreneurship and Rural Development at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. We are really excited to have our faculty spotlight this month with Dr. David Nabb. He is one of our local innovators. I am going to visit with him about an invention he has and how he is a local entrepreneur. Thank you so much!

I’m so happy to be here.

Tell me a little about your background.

I was hired at UNK in 1994. That makes this my 23rd year here at UNK. I’m a professor of music and my responsibilities include teaching courses in music history, teaching lessons in woodwind—saxophone, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon. That’s what I’ve been doing for 23 years and I just love it here.

So you’ve always been involved with music?

Absolutely. It’s always been my first passion. I started playing saxophone and beginning band in 5th grade in Blue Grass, Iowa. The more I learned about saxophone, the more interested I became. I was connected with a very fine teacher when I was in junior high school named Dick Holtz and he just set me on the track. The more I learned about it, the more I enjoyed it. I studied it at Yale University—did two degrees there—and then did some teaching and performing for a few years. Then I went back to the University of North Texas to do a PhD in music education. Then I was hired here.

Are you from the Kearney area?

I grew up in Iowa, as a matter of fact, outside of Davenport, Iowa in a very small town.

Those teachers when you’re young can really impact you, can’t they?

Especially something as personal as music, really help to have an individual contact—a person to go to with questions.

You have been teaching this for a while and then all of the sudden, you encountered some sort of a problem. Would you want to tell us a little about that?

On February 26th, 2000—almost 17 years ago to the date—it was a Saturday afternoon and I was at home with my wife, talking on the telephone, when suddenly I experienced a major stroke. To that point I had been in perfect health. I was a nonsmoker, I didn’t drink much, I ate good food, was very careful with myself…There was no warning. There were no precipitating events. It just suddenly happened. So I won the lottery. Just very bad luck. Suddenly you’re in the hospital and you’re a musician who can’t even use his hand. I can’t even stand up or talk properly. The doctors have no idea of prognosis for improvement. They were very discouraging as far as I was concerned. I ended up having to just ignore what they said and just move forward.

I was desperate to get back to work. I had two young children, ages four and seven, who needed a dad. All we wanted to do was just go out in the backyard and throw a baseball around, and I couldn’t do that. That was hard. It was just very difficult for my family, and for me personally—and professionally. My whole professional life was in jeopardy. It would’ve been very easy for me to simply stop playing and give up on the music teaching, and go onto disability and take social security benefits, which is I suppose what most people assumed I was going to do. But that just wasn’t what I wanted to do.

Fortunately, Jeff Stelling, who owns Stelling Brass & Winds here in Kearney, NE…I already knew Jeff quite well and he had been working on my instruments’ repairs. He owns a musical instrument repair business here in Kearney. He had been working on my horns for a number of years and he is a creative genius. He simply said, “I want to build a one-handed saxophone.” I initially thought it was a terrible idea. One-handed saxophone…people just don’t do that because it’s hard to play with two hands. What are you going to do? I said “you won’t be able to do everything.” He said “no, I’m going to build one that can do everything.” We struggled with it. There was no easy answer.

How long after your stroke did this take place?

We started talking about it while I was still in the hospital. Within 6 weeks or so, the progress was negligible. I couldn’t walk. Of course what I wanted to do was make a full recovery and get back to work, but I couldn’t do that.

See the saxophone is not like the piano. With the piano you can play middle C with any of your ten fingers. With the saxophone, one finger is assigned to each key. We found a way to take advantage of that…My left hand was severely affected. My right hand is still completely normal. So my right hand takes over the job of the left hand fingers. Jeff invented a key that is completely revolutionary. Never been done in the world. What this instrument does is...this finger does what it normally does because we still have to do all the right hand stuff, and it takes over all of the jobs of this finger. So this finger is no longer necessary. And then you do the same thing…This finger does what it normally does and takes over the job of this one. Then this finger does what it normally does and takes over all the jobs of this one. And so on down the line. He calls this a toggle key. It’s never been done before in the history of the solar system, and Jeff did it here in Kearney, Nebraska.

How long did it take before the toggle system made its appearance?

We talked about it for a considerable amount of time, and then he didn’t know if he could do it, he didn’t know if he could do it…We were just playing around with ideas. So then he went into his shop and he said, “I made three prototypes and one of them sort of works.” That was about a month after we started talking about it. “One of them sort of works, and I might try and do something like that.” So he took an old, beat up saxophone that had no value. It was all rusted and caved in. He cleaned it up so it looked like new. Because it had no value, it had no loss if the experiment didn’t work. He started trying to put that mechanism on that horn. It’s called a bundy tube. It started to work much better than either of us either anticipated. It was just beyond our dreams.

You’ve got a working prototype. How far out were you?

He made the models in about June of 2000. It took about a month to come up with those. Then in July, he started putting it on this bundy tube body. It took a year, until about the following July, for that instrument to be playable. We spent a year modifying the bundy tube and moving things around, saying “This key is good here, but this would be better here…”
After about a year of modifying the bundy tube, it was in a very playable state, and I used that horn in my teaching.

Going through this whole process with Jeff…Did it help you personally with your rehabilitation after the stroke?

It was everything to me because this is not just a job. If you’re a musician, it’s every part of your life. It’s how I met my wife, it’s what I did with my kids when I had free time—I’d take out my horn and play their violin lessons with them. All my friends were musicians. All my acquaintances were musicians. Not just here in Kearney, but throughout my adult and adolescent life, going all the way back. So it’s very closely tied to your personal identity. Then to have everything taken away from you in a matter of three to four minutes, and there’s nothing you can do…just completely by chance…was terrifying.

Going through this process was…?

It’s been great. I’ve been able to go back to work, I now have a fulfilling professional life, which is a nice turn around. It certainly shows the benefit of—we call this assistive technology, when a disabled person requires help in returning to work.

And Jeff was integral in that. Now he owns the toggle system?

Jeff has developed it and we don’t have a patent, per say. But we have some protections.

So you’re partners with him in this?

Yes. We’re working on it together. Since that time we’ve received inquiries from hundreds of people all over the world who would like to start playing, or return to playing, the saxophone, with just one hand. People who were born with cerebral palsy, people who were in automobile accidents, a young man who lost his arm in an airplane accident, a girl who had a fall learning how to ski…All of these people want to make music and they only have one completely functional hand. We’re now working to make this technology available to more and more people. There’s no reason they shouldn’t make music.

The concern is it’s so labor-intensive to make these. It took Jeff 1200 hours to build my saxophone. That’s a lot of time. If you multiply 1200 by what I pay the girl who cuts my hair, you’re talking about $48,000. Right now Jeff is asking $25,000 for the conversion.

Is he crowd-funding?

We have not. We’re looking at various ways to build this.

I noticed on your website, http://onehandwinds.unk.edu, you can make a donation there?

That’s right. To the University Foundation.

When we teach about entrepreneurship and we work with entrepreneurs, the first things we always ask is ‘what problem are you solving?’. So kudos to you. You definitely came in with a solution and this is a class problem-solution. Pretty inspiring.

Jeff is the hero here. Jeff is the guy who owns the business and has had to sacrifice his time and his creativity.

Has this experience changed the way you teach?

I think I connect with students differently. I think I’m a better problem solver and I’m less intimidated by severe challenges than maybe I used to. I think I have more self confidence than I did before all of this started.

There’s always a silver lining, right?

Well, you have to think that way. We all need to survive. And that’s really all it comes down to.

Thanks so much for sharing your story! Do we get the chance now to see you play and show us this wonderful system?

I hope so!

By: Emily Kassmeier

Category: Business and Technology, Entrepreneur

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