Young musician picks up the beat courtesy of robotic trumpet

Mitchell Lester, left, and Chris Petrick smile after Chris hears a trumpet built for him work for the first time. Chris, 10, has a rare unspecified myopathy muscle condition that weakens his upper extremities. Lester helped construct a device that helps Chris play.
Mitchell Lester, left, and Chris Petrick smile after Chris hears a trumpet built for him work for the first time. Chris, 10, has a rare unspecified myopathy muscle condition that weakens his upper extremities. Lester helped construct a device that helps Chris play. CDT photo

With the crash of cymbals, Chris Petrick’s debut concert began.

Earlier last Monday, the Gray’s Woods Elementary School concert band had performed at a school assembly. But that was more like a warm-up.

Now came the real deal for the fourth-grader neatly dressed in gray slacks and a white polo shirt.

Before him, rows of parents, grandparents and siblings filled the gym for the evening performance, proud faces craning to see better. Cameras and smartphones, held aloft, captured the culmination of morning rehearsals and beginner classes.

Many of the musicians were neophytes like Chris, but he made the night truly historic.

Never had the annual Spring Concert included a robotic trumpet.

Chris, 10, has a rare, unspecified myopathy muscle-weakness condition, a genetic disease that affects his vision and upper-body strength.

When he decided last year to play the trumpet, he wasn’t strong enough to hold the instrument or press the keys in normal fashion. Instead, he played with his thumbs, propping his trumpet on the back of a chair or between his legs while sitting on a couch.

But thanks to a device born from teamwork and innovation, Chris could handle four concert selections — without ever touching his keys.

Attached to the trumpet propped atop a stand, a black plastic casing housed electromagnetic solenoids wired to a deck of three buttons. As Chris tapped a button, the corresponding valve depressed.

In his big moment, he played for a cast of benefactors.

Directing him was music teacher Roy Schaeffer, who took it upon himself to help a fellow trumpet player in need.

In the audience stood Mitchell Lester, a State College Area High School senior who designed and built the remote-controlled valves for a school project, and Doug Ripka, the engineering technology teacher who guided him.

Across the gym sat John and Angela Petrick, happy that their son once again had triumphed — as they always encouraged him to do — and grateful for the friends who gave him the chance.

“As his parents, we will do absolutely anything for him to be successful, and we will give him every opportunity we can give him,” Angela Petrick said.

“But I think what’s most touched me, and I’m sure for John, too, is that there are other people who are willing to go above and beyond for Christopher.”

The musician

Doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where Chris goes for care, have yet to pin down his condition.

Years ago, his parents just knew something was wrong.

At 3, Chris stopped meeting his growth milestones. He picked up items with his wrists held together, rather than with his fingers.

Angela Petrick, a licensed physical therapist, noticed that Chris walked up stairs one foot at a time instead of alternating steps.

Tests, muscle biopsies and MRI scans eventually determined that Chris had a mysterious form of myopathy, a neuromuscular disorder characterized by dysfunctional muscle fibers and quicker fatigue.

“We try to tell everybody: Think of you starting the day with your glass full of muscle strength,” Angela Petrick said. “Chris’ glass starts maybe half full.”

Even before Chris first gripped a milk bottle with his wrists, his condition manifested itself.

“I remember going in to get him out of the crib,” Angela Petrick said. “He had the same infectious smile he has now. I went in and he was smiling at me, but his head was tilted forward. I came out and said, ‘That’s not right.’ ”

Chris had corneal clouding: two central cataracts. Surgeons removed both within a couple of weeks and implanted lenses.

Today, Chris reads his school assignments and homework on enlarged paper. He wears prescription Rec Specs safety glasses that enhance and protect his light-sensitive vision.

The durable silver glasses, bold and sporty, match their owner’s personality.

Zippers may thwart Chris, but life doesn’t.

He uses his shoulders and wrists to compensate for his arms and hands. For opening twist-off beverage caps or pulling soda tabs, he relies on an adaptive bottle/can opener. He brushes his teeth with a super-light toothbrush, and drinks from tumblers that appear made from thick glass but are actually lightweight plastic.

“These are just tools in his tool box,” John Petrick said.

While Chris was in kindergarten, the Petricks put together a book, “My Life at Five,” to introduce him to his classmates.

They learned that he swam frequently, the backstroke his specialty. He studied Tang Soo Do, earning an orange belt in the Korean martial art in six months.

“We wanted his story to be out there so kids could know that he was really like any of them, and all of us need help at some time in our life with something or another,” Angela Petrick said.

Chris needed a little assistance with Tee Ball.

His mother sewed a batting glove inside his mitt, then fastened the glove to his wrist with Velcro to keep it on his hand. His father, the Patton Township police chief, served as his son’s “outfield buddy,” catching any balls hit their way.

“He gets up every day with a smile on his face and a great attitude,” his mother said. “I never hear that child say, ‘I can’t.’ ”

If there’s one thing Chris wants people to know about him, it’s this: “I’m just normal, but I have a little arm weakness.”

That doesn’t keep him from plunking out “Chopsticks” on the piano.

He’s always been musical, just like his 11-year-old brother, Alex, a viola player. Both have taken piano lessons.

For one MRI in Philadelphia, Chris had to lie still for 90 minutes. His mother asked him how he could stand listening to the “pinging” for so long.

She’ll always remember his answer.

“Mommy,” he said, “I made music out of it.”

The teachers

Chris wanted to play the drums in school.

He took a year of lessons, but a band demonstration in the third grade changed his mind. He heard the blast of trumpets.

So long, percussion.

At back-to-school night last fall, his mother ran into Roy Schaeffer, the music instructor. She told him about her son’s new desire. He said he would think about it.

And he did.

Schaeffer first evaluated Chris, making sure he could at least produce sound through the mouthpiece. Playing, though, was another matter.

He saw how hard it was for Chris, how the boy couldn’t press all three keys with his thumbs, how he tired easily from his awkward position.

He also saw how much Chris wanted to learn.

Then Schaeffer remembered a man.

He recalled an aging jazz trumpet player he knew in his younger days. Because of arthritis, the musician could no longer play.

At the time, Schaeffer imagined some kind of mechanical device aiding the stiff fingers. He went no further.

Chris would be different.

“This is to make it fair,” Schaeffer said. “Fair means everybody has the same opportunity for success.

“He has equal opportunity to play the trumpet, but his disability makes that extremely difficult. We’re eliminating that so that it makes it fair.”

Schaeffer approached colleague Doug Ripka at State High. Could Ripka and an engineering student build something to reduce the pressure needed for the keys?

Could they help Chris achieve his dream?

Ripka thought so.

“I thought it was kind of an interesting idea,” said Ripka, an electrical engineer. “I didn’t see any technical reasons why it couldn’t be done, just a lot of little hurdles.”

The inventor

Mitchell Lester wanted to build a turbojet.

He’ll enter Penn State this summer, aspiring to become an aerospace engineer. A jet engine seemed like a fine senior project.

Then along came Ripka to enlist him. Lester didn’t have time before graduation to finish two inventions, and a boy was waiting.

Hello, trumpet.

“I was definitely interested,” Lester said. “It was an interesting concept to be able to make something that was just mechanical into something that was powered by electricity.”

Under Ripka’s tutelage, Lester began in October.

“Mr. Ripka had the idea of a solenoid to pull (valves) down, and that’s what we kind of ran with,” Lester said. “That made the most sense.”

A solenoid converts electricity into a directional magnetic field by sending electrical current through a coil of copper wire. In Lester’s design, when activated by a lightly pressed button, each solenoid draws a steel rod coupled to a valve.

But perfecting the design wasn’t as straightforward. Ripka’s hunch about hurdles proved correct.

In December, the Petrick family met with Ripka and Lester in their lab. The senior showed a rough prototype, the start of an engineering journey.

Lester had hoped to finish by mid-February, but complications delayed completion.

His first solenoids were too wide to be arrayed in a row next to a trumpet’s three valves. To avoid a staggered placement that would make his device longer and heavier, he switched to a smaller solenoid.

After calculating the right distance between the solenoids and valves, then milling out the couplers, Lester set out to make the circuit board.

Again and again.

“That’s the reason why it has taken us so long, these circuit boards,” he said. “I probably did 10 boards.”

Some just didn’t work. Others shorted when a trace, a copper line embedded on a board, pulled up.

Lester shrugged off each bug Ripka diagnosed, diving back into design programs to fix the problem and then milling out another try.

He needed more patience while solving the power question with a DC socket — good for a wall outlet or battery pack — and while refining the plastic casing around the solenoids, couplers and circuit board wired to the buttons.

Using a 3-D printer, Lester created several casings before arriving at the final version that protects the internal parts from damage and shields Chris from the solenoids’ heat.

The casing includes a decorative cutaway and a hole for mounting the trumpet on a stand.

“Actually, with all the (casings), I had the stand,” Lester said. “That was one thing I didn’t have to change. I got it right the first time.”

In the end, after all the puzzles and tweaks, Lester learned a valuable lesson about inventions.

“It may not work,” he said. “If it doesn’t work the 10th time, you still have to go for the 11th.”

Before he finished, just days from the spring concert, Lester put in about 200 hours of work, mostly in the lab during school periods but also at home.

If it hadn’t been for the 3-D printer, he might still be working.

Ripka said the printer, which produces in several hours what traditional milling would take weeks, made the project possible. But he reserved the most credit for Lester.

“It was difficult because of all the things he had to learn,” Ripka said. “So I’m very pleased that he stuck with it and saw it through.”

For about $250 in materials, Lester could have a marketable device. He’s thinking of fine-tuning his design so that it could benefit others in need, such as amputees or arthritis sufferers.

But for now, he knows one boy is making music because of him, and that’s enough.

“It was a reward to see his face light up when he was playing last night,” Lester said, a day after Chris first used the whole device — to excitement all around the lab.

“That was great. It’s also a bit of a burden lifted off because I have so many other things I want to do.”

The moment

At Gray’s Woods Elementary, the concert concluded with “Name Those Tunes,” a medley of nursery rhymes.

But the night ended on an even happier note for Chris.

In the hallway outside the gym, he shook one of the hands that had opened a new world to him.

“Thank you,” Chris said.

“How did it work out all the way through?” Lester said. “No problems?”

Both grinned. Smiles surrounded them. Congratulations flowed.

“I thought it was fabulous, absolutely fabulous,” Angela Petrick said. “What I think is even more special is all these people showed up to support Chris.”

The teachers, the inventor and his parents, the musician and his family: Everyone basked in the moment, the coda to a beautiful duet between art and science.

“We can’t thank Mitchell enough for his time and effort,” John Petrick said to Lester’s mother, Sharon. “He’s given Chris a gift.”