Research@Schulich: Connor Kemp

Connor Kemp is currently completing a PhD in Music Technology at the Schulich School of Music. With a background in mechanical and materials engineering, his research focuses on understanding how natural cane reeds for saxophone degrade over time.

Originally from Peterborough, Ontario, Connor completed an undergraduate degree in Mechanical and Materials Engineering in Kingston, followed by a master’s degree in Materials Engineering. During his first two years at McGill, he was a co-leader of CIRMMT's instruments, devices, and systems research axis, and also presented initial reed modelling work at the SAPEM conference in Stockholm, Sweden. He also spent one month experimenting at Empa in Zurich, Switzerland during the Fall of 2017. He is currently pursing opportunities for post-doctoral studies in reed fatigue characterisation and the mechanics of natural materials.

You can read one of Connor's recent articles in the Materials Research Society Advances journal (co-written with Prof. Gary Savone) online: "Microstructure Contributions to Vibrational Damping and Identification of Damage Mechanisms in Arundo Donax L: Reed Cane for Woodwind Instruments"

He is part of Schulich's Computational Acoustic Modelling Laboratory (CAML), which you can read more about on their website


What made you choose McGill for your doctoral studies?

I've been at McGill for five years now, and I decided to study here because of the opportunity to work with experts in the project I was interested in. The laboratories in the Music Technology area are also unique in Canada, and when the chance came to join a lab I decided to pursue it.

How has being a McGill student influenced your research?

Being a McGill student has provided me with many resources that have been crucial to the success of my thesis work. Through courses that I took, and various meetings, I was able to form collaborations with other experts and labs around McGill that significantly increased the quality of work I was able to produce. The McGill community as a whole has been extremely open and constructive in the development of new ideas, and allowed me to run experiments that have produced new knowledge and been extremely satisfying personally. Discussions with colleagues and professors from a wide variety of backgrounds have also been extremely helpful. 

Describe your research in three sentences or less:

My research is focused on understanding the degradation behaviour of natural cane reeds for woodwind instruments. Reeds are known to degrade with time and playing, and this causes their performance to vary significantly. Characterisation of this degradation and changing properties will aid in the design of future synthetic reeds that mimic the desirable mechanical properties of cane reeds.

This is some of the testing equipment set up in the lab:

What led you to this particular topic?

I was interested in studying reeds and reed material to combine my background in materials engineering and my personal interests in music. I was also fascinated with the study of natural materials and their anatomical structures that lead to desirable engineering properties. I was also curious to investigate the changing properties of reeds from a scientific perspective to see if their changing behaviour could be quantified. The Computational Acoustic Modelling Laboratory (CAML) offered a unique opportunity to study a musical problem as an engineer.

How does your research add to what was already known?

Previous research into the performance of reeds has not considered changing reed properties. Investigations into the quality of reeds has typically only involved new reeds, and neglected the effects of the typical “break-in” period that cane reeds experience. This research has shown the importance of changing reed properties both over the long term and upon their initial playing after purchase. Quantifiable properties are also shown to change over the short term and suggests that reed quality needs to consider the natural aging process, and not simply initial mechanical properties.

The following image shows a 3D reconstruction of x-ray computed tomography data obtained from a piece of raw cane, the material that woodwind reeds are manufactured from. The orientation depicts what is found through the cross-section of a typical reed:

Were there any findings that were particularly surprising to you?

Although it is known that reeds become softer with time, it was surprising to learn that they lose between 25 to 50% of their stiffness over a 2.5 month playing period. It was also interesting to learn that there are two primary structures within cane plants that exhibit fundamentally different behaviour during the aging process. The professional musician that collaborated in our research was also found to be highly sensitive to small variances in reed stiffness across the tip. This suggests that reed symmetry, in terms of stiffness, highly influences the so-called “feel” of the reed to musicians.

What are the practical implications of your research?

These results are important as they suggest that alternative reed sorting methods are required to better control for reed variability. These methods need to also include more rigorous classification methods in terms of reed stiffness symmetry. Results of the testing methods employed will help manufacturers to identify new testing methods for screening reed material prior to machining. Musicians will also benefit from the new knowledge of reed aging by mitigating the adverse effects of aging through careful reed storage.

What are the next steps?

The next steps for this research include the development of an automated reed testing rig to simulate playing conditions. This will enable more direct control over playing variables such as lip force and blowing pressure. The frequency dependence of reed aging could also be investigated in this way to examine the importance of playing repertoire on reed deterioration. These new experiments will form a post-doctoral study that I intend to begin in the Winter 2019. All results from experimental testing will be published in several engineering and scientific journals over the coming weeks and months.

What advice would you give to new students entering into your program?

New students in this program should seek out the help and experiences of current graduate students in various labs to get a feel for previous research and outstanding questions that remain. This can be beneficial to both parties, and provide the student with ideas for their own research path. Finding a research topic that you're interested in is very important to the success of a project, and care should be taken to investigate potential projects through reading of the literature, lab discussions, and meetings with your supervisor. Take time to set out a schedule for reading, writing and running experiments so that you can balance a healthy study-leisure lifestyle.


Where is your favourite place to study?

My favourite place to study and read is the music library. The atmosphere gives off a vibe that encourages productivity, and being able to use all of the resources it offers is helpful. Its proximity to the downtown and places to eat makes it my preferred working spot when not in the lab.

Where can you be found on a day off?

During off days I enjoy running on Mont Royal and its great trails. Walking down to the Old Port and taking in the sights is also enjoyable. Although it's a hobby, I enjoy reading up on analytical techniques as they apply to sports and hockey more specifically. I find this to be another interesting avenue for the combination of two personal interests: science/engineering and sports. As an avid hockey fan I also try and get to some Habs games each season.

What is your earliest musical memory?

My earliest musical memory is of my music teacher from elementary school playing the piano in a Christmas assembly. Just a few days later, I also remember my great-grandmother playing tunes on the piano with my grandad singing along. These small yet impactful memories certainly contributed to my interest in music, and paved the way for me to learn the saxophone.

If you hadn’t ended up in music, what would your alternate career path have been?

I've been lucky enough to combine my engineering background with my musical interest, but I could envision a career where I use what I have learned to pursue a materials research position. Studying natural cane reeds has piqued my interest in natural materials at large, and I hope to continue researching the mechanics and properties of materials found in nature for biomimetic purposes.

What was the last book you read?

The last book that I read was Respectable Ditch. It's a detailed history of the construction of the Trent-Severn Waterway and its ties to Canadian confederation. The book is written by a history professor with a personal interest in Ontario waterways. The Trent-Severn traverses much of the area where I grew up in Southern Ontario and my own interest in its history led me to do my own research and discover the book.

If you were offered a return plane ticket to anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?

If I were offered a return plane ticket to anywhere in the world I would choose to go to New Zealand. I really enjoy hiking and taking in nature and the size of the country is such that driving from place to place would be a great option for seeing the countryside. I’m also a big Lord of the Rings fan and the idea of visiting Hobbiton is very appealing!

If you could invite any four notable figures from history to a dinner party, who would they be and why?

I'd host a dinner party with Winston Churchill, Nicola Tesla, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Richard Rogers. With respect to the first three, so many things directly related to their personal careers have changed and it would be very interesting to discuss the modern world with them. It would also be a fascinating combination of characters to have in the same room. As a mechanical/materials engineer myself, chatting with Richard Rogers would be a great way to connect with the past. Rogers was a mechanical engineer who studied at McGill in the 1800’s, and was the sole designer of the hydraulic lift lock at Peterborough, Ontario. These people represent personal interests of mine and were instrumental in advancing their fields during their day.