Get The Gear On Stage: A Call For Alternative Performance Ensembles in Schools

By James Frankel

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As I write this article, I am no longer a music teacher in the public schools. I left the New Jersey Public Schools on January 1st 2008 to become the Managing Director of SoundTree – a company that specializes in installing music, audio, and video technology in schools across the country. In this new role, I hope to bring technology to a larger audience of music educators and their students.

The May 2008 edition of the Technology Corner will be my last article for Tempo Magazine. It has been a tremendous honor to write for Tempo, and I thank Tom Mosher for all of his efforts over the years. I look forward to someone else taking the Technology Corner column into the 21st Century.

 

 

Imagine the following scenario: family members are settling down for the Spring Concert in the school auditorium, anxious to hear their child perform in the chorus, band or orchestra. When the curtain opens however, there is something different on stage. In place of music stands, risers, and instruments, there are a group of 12 students sitting around in a semi circle on the floor. Each student has a laptop computer in front of them, complete with an audio system, a few handheld devices, and keyboards. The music teacher takes the stage, introduces the group, and walks off. After the crowd rustles a bit in uncertainty, music – not traditional school music, but highly electronic music – begins to emanate from the speakers. Strange sounds, unfamiliar in the acoustic realm, are bounced back and forth between the students. Grooves emerge, improvisations are omnipresent. All each student does is stare into their laptop screens, run their fingers over pads, and occasionally play a few notes on their keyboards. Their faces light up as they make music. After ten minutes of trance-like music, the electronic sounds begin to fade, and the students take their bow.

Here’ another one: students practice every day after school with a few of their teachers and parent volunteers to nail down that Red Hot Chili Peppers tune. They are practicing because they will be playing at the Battle of the Bands that is coming up quickly. Teachers, parents, students, and administrators cram the auditorium on concert night to hear young students play Bob Dylan tunes. The next day they are rock stars. Their album is put onto the iTunes Music Store as a fundraiser through a service called TuneCore.com.

Do these scenarios sound crazy? They might, but they are already happening.

This article might seem a bit heretical to the traditional model of public school music programs, but I believe it is time for music educators to investigate the possibilities of alternative performance ensembles in schools. I believe there is a disconnect between the music that students make in school and the music that they listen to at home. While the music they play in school is often of the highest musical standards, they just don’t go home and download it (I am sure that there are some exceptions to this). I know that music programs do a wonderful job of teaching musical skills through performance literature, and it could be easily argued that it is not important whether students “like” the music they play – it is there to teach them “how to play”, but what about the students who are not in a performance ensemble? How many students never have the opportunity to perform because they “can’t” play an instrument? How many musicians do you remember from school who were never a part of their school music program? What about all of the rock ‘n’ rollers? What about the piano players? If the point of music education is to provide all students with a well rounded musical experience, then we must consider alternatives to our traditional models of performance ensembles so that every student can be included.

PLOrk

A few years ago I attended a concert by the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk) (http://plork.cs.princeton.edu/) and I was absolutely amazed by both the group and the music. The ensemble has about 15 members – all students at Princeton. Each student has a laptop computer, a “hemispheric” speaker, and a variety of software and hardware controls. Most of the software they use is open source, so you can visit their website and download it to try it out. Founders Dan Trueman and Perry Cook premiered the group in April of 2006 with performances by Pauline Oliveros, Zakir Hussein, and So Percussion. I was lucky enough to have been in attendance that night. It was one of the most memorable concert experiences of my life. Aside from my amazement with the technical side of things, the music was incredible – like nothing I had ever heard before. The visual imagery was equally enjoyable. Students began the performance by sitting around in a semi-circle on the floor. Soon, some were standing up using controllers that reacted to their body movement.

There are other equally impressive electronic music ensembles out there doing amazing things. They include The Music Technology Group at Georgia Institute of Technology (http://www.music.gatech.edu/mtg/) and the Capitol University MIDI Band (http://www.capital.edu/2397/). I strongly urge you to check these groups out, and if you can, attend one of their upcoming performances.

School of Rock

On the rock ‘n’ roll front, last year, I began a “School of Rock” club at my middle school, based on the model from the movie and Paul Greens’ extremely successful real-life model (http://famsschoolofrock.wikispaces.com). It was amazing to see students who had never performed on an instrument in school, pull out their guitars and drums and play. It was even more amazing to hear them sing! We worked with five bands for four months – once a week after school for an hour (each). The students were responsible for practicing outside of school – many did so daily. The Battle of the Bands was held in April and it was perhaps the most successful musical event in my career. We hired a professional sound man, sold tickets, made a video, and recorded the concert using a hand-held MicroTrack from M-Audio. There were hundreds of people in attendance, and even the administrators were dancing! We used TuneCore.com to upload our album to the iTunes Music Store, and all of the funds raised are being donated to the Mr. Hollands Opus Foundation – so far over $1,100. The most important result of this event was when a parent came to thank me for allowing her son to have his moment in the spotlight – something he had never had before. There are many other schools in our area that have similar programs – possibly for the same reasons.

So the question you must be asking is: “how can I get an ensemble like these in my school?” It is not as hard as it seems. Let’s start with an electronic music ensemble, like PLOrk.

It is highly unlikely that your school computer administrator will allow you to take 16 laptops out of rotation for use in a school music ensemble – I agree. Truth is - you don’t need computers to have an electronic music ensemble. This Spring, I am working with my former students at the Franklin Avenue Middle School on an electronic music ensemble. The students will be using a variety of affordable instruments to make their music. These instruments include the Kaossilator and the mini KP – both from Korg. The Kaossilator is a hand-held dynamic phrase synthesizer that allows students to simply run their fingers over a pad to create sounds. They can select the key, scale type, time signature, tempo, and patch. They can also use the loop feature to create 2 measure loops. The mini KP is an audio effects processor that can manipulate audio from any device – as long as it has an audio out on it. This includes not only the Kaossilator, but iPods, hand-held video gaming devices, cellphones, and more. The Koassilators will be grouped in fours and then run through one of two mini KPs. In addition to these devices (each retails for $199) students will use one laptop computer with GarageBand as a performance device. These instruments will all be run through a mixer to a speaker. I am looking forward to working with the students in this new road for music education.

If this type of ensemble is something that is beyond your reach, why not take the synthesizers that you might have in your classroom and perform some of the literature that is out there for keyboard ensembles at your next concert? Too often those keyboards never leave the classroom. While it might be a bit of a hassle to move them, they were meant as performance instruments, not solely as an input device. Why not add one synthesizer to your band or orchestra to fill out missing instrumentation?

What if you have no technology in your music program at all? Why not start a percussion ensemble in the style of Stomp, where the students use garbage pails, and other found instruments to make music? I have done this in the past with a group I called BOOM. It was always the most popular part of my concerts.

It is my sincere hope that this article has given you some ideas for how to incorporate alternative performance ensembles into your music programs. It is not my intention to disqualify the value of what we have been doing in music education for the past 100 years. Traditional performance ensembles will always have their place in our schools and in our culture. I believe however that we should expand our performance opportunities so that we can give every student a chance to perform.

I am always available through email for your questions and comments. My new email address is: jimf@soundtree.com.