In addition to being a chartered accountant, a real estate broker, entrepreneur and the kind of inventor who rigs up lamps and cheese graters to prove a point, Jack McGowan plays viola. Trained in performance, he found himself playing in a darkened church one night, unable to see his music.
It's not the kind of thing that concertgoers give much thought to, but before they can hear the music, musicians have to be able to see it – and lighting a music stand is harder than it seems. Most music stands are lit from little lamps perched on top. But that light wants to diffuse into a cone shape, leaving some areas in shadow and others blindingly bright. "If you want to get enough light at the bottom of the page, you have to completely overlight the top," explains Mr. McGowan.
Now, take this problem, and put it in an orchestra pit, which has to stay dim so as not to distract the audience. But orchestra lights can dot them like Christmas lights, to the consternation of the local stage manager.
"Musicians have suffered this for years, because there's nothing better," says Mr. McGowan. "There's gotta be a better way to do this."
The result was the Triplet Music Light, an invention that Mr. McGowan is currently demonstrating for orchestras around the world.
The Triplet – named for his trio of children – looks like a regular music stand, but the music rests on a horizontal slab at the bottom. An aperture runs the width of the slab, near the front, releasing a carefully-focused square of LED light that spreads evenly across the music above.
To control the light, Mr. McGowan turned to an old principle: Light collimation, which straightens light into parallel rays, much like enormous Fresnel lenses in lighthouses concentrated light into powerful beams. Engineering this into a music stand was trickier. After one set of industrial engineers told Mr. McGowan it couldn't be done (and got fired), he set up a mockup involving a granola box, a flashlight, and a cheese grater to show the next ones what he meant. They found a way to make it work.
Shepherded into reality by chief financial officer Mary Sharkey and the industrial designers at Ottawa's Gibson Design, Mr. McGowan's brainchild is about to hit the market. He's lready closed a deal with the University of Ottawa, and is busy demonstrating the device for orchestras from Ottawa to Edmonton and fielding enquiries from even further. At $363.33, it's not cheap, but then, as McGowan says, musicians will pay for the things that matter.
"They will scrimp and save and save and drive a thirty-year-old car to play a $40,000 cello."
After all that, it would be a shame to play in the dark.
Special to The Globe and Mail