Rising Artist


Rachel Balma

Rachel Balma, interactive designer, is earning her MFA at the School of Visual Arts. After suffering from partial hearing loss at a concert, she became interested in alternatives for children with sensory impairment. She hopes her design of a blanket through which music can be felt will not only improve the lives of users, but also will modify the perspective of the sensory-typical.

AIRED: March 19, 2020 | 0:05:39


My name is Rachel Balma,

and I'm an MFA interaction design candidate

at the School of Visual Arts.

Interaction design is the study

of the relationships between people and people,

people and machines, and machines and machines.

There are so many different routes that it can take.

It could be the screen interface of an application,

or it could be designing the experience

of a patient going into a hospital.

I really care about elevating these ordinary moments

that we often overlook

and seeing where maybe I could improve that interaction

and build a bridge there.


I started off in undergrad as a classical singer.

I think that was and still is probably my most authentic way

of interfacing with the world.

In 2013, I went to a concert at Madison Square Garden,

and I suffered an acoustic trauma there.

I lost a little of my high-frequency hearing,

and I also acquired a condition called tinnitus,

which is a constant ringing in the ears

that I still have to this day.

So it was a huge sensory perception shift

and just, like, completely changed the way I heard.

It was especially difficult for me

because I had this background

where music was kind of, like,

my primary means of communicating.

And adjusting to that,

I started becoming more curious

about how other people perceive the world,

because it changed the way I perceived the world so fundamentally,

and I'd never considered that before,

what it must really feel like

to be in somebody else's sensory shoes.

I wanted to explore the experience of music

for people who don't have full control

of that sense of hearing.


The Elizabeth Seton Children's Center

is home to 169 medically complex children.

We've had some residents who are deaf or hard of hearing,

and the question is, how can you do music with them?

Rachel's idea for creating something

to help the children participate or experience music more fully,

I thought, was brilliant.

Music is a multisensory thing.

I think the bias is that you say "music,"

and I think the first thing someone will think of,

in terms of how they sense it, is they hear it,

but you also literally feel it.

Since the last time I saw you,

I've been working with Brian on kind of the part of this

that is going to actually attach to the guitar.

Rachel's project is a blanket that vibrates

with how I'm playing my music.

Imagine what you're hearing.

Imagine feeling that instead of hearing it.

Balma: So the blanket itself was not something

that occurred to me immediately.

I really wanted to make sure I was designing

within this community

and not just trying to be outside designing for.

I sat with James,

and a couple of the other therapists joined in,

and it was kind of more of that co-design process

that helped eke out the idea of this blanket.

Maxson: I think there's something special about it being a blanket.

It can adapt. It's soft. It is flexible.

It can be wrapped around somebody.

You can lay somebody on it.

There's something innate about that feeling

of warmth and comfort that comes from a blanket, too.

Balma: The first time going to test with the residents

at Elizabeth Seton Children's,

I was nervous.

I didn't know if what we'd been building all of this time

was going to be meaningful for them,

but that was just part of the process.

And, luckily, it was a good outcome.

Lucas: ♪ In music today ♪

[ Guitar plays ]

Maxson: We placed the blanket on the resident,

and we played music,

and we could see an immediate reaction.

She smiled, she moved.

She raised her arm, which might not seem like a lot,

but for for us and our residents,

like, signs like that are very, very profound,

and especially if it's coming because of the music

and because of something that we're communicating with them.

[ Guitar plays ]


♪ I heard you singing in music ♪

♪ I hear you singing ♪

I think the potential behind this is immense, is huge.

If it can help somebody make that connection

between sound and their own sense of self,

give them these experiences to express themselves,

to have fun, to be sad,

to be a part of something bigger,

to be a part of us,

that's, I think, where the true beauty of this can be.


I think art, in general,

either presents us with a new perspective

or asks us to take a new perspective.

It transports us,

and that's definitely something that I did intentionally

with this project.

It was kind of the answer

to an opportunity that I saw in the world,

but it was also a provocation to people who saw it,

who might not need the "solution,"

but to think about an experience we all share,

which is music, from a totally different perspective.



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