Building an Electronic Music Program
Our Experience in Bringing 21st Century Skills to the Music Curriculum
Researchers, lawmakers, and administrators all seem to agree on one thing: Our children need 21st century skills. Despite this consensus, little has been provided in the way of substantive ideas, funding, or support in bringing these new ideas to fruition – especially in music education. Without this guidance, how are we, as individual teachers, supposed to provide these important skills to our students?
Many teachers, after starting the process of designing curricula that addresses 21st century skills, experience a feeling of isolation, both in their school and within the music teaching community at-large. For those teachers who would like to make meaningful changes to their curriculum, resources and support are scarce. Indeed, some of this scarcity is undoubtedly due to the fact that, as a profession, we’re still determining what a ‘modern” music education will look like.
It is hard to ignore how often state and national music education conventions try to shoehorn 21st century skills into the subjects we already teach in our classes. The profession, it seems, has decided that “creativity” is our ticket to 21st century success. While there are definitely elements of creativity in various areas of music education, the majority of students are building musical literacy and interpretational skills by reading and rehearsing with an ensemble. Take that in for a moment and ask yourself one very difficult question: How many of my students would be able to play with minimal or no music in front of them? This question is essential to assessing the ‘creativity quotient’ of what we teach. Because of the nature of our ensemble classes, truly creative activities can be difficult (and sometimes, very uncomfortable). With that in mind, we have to be willing to embrace a different construct of music making in order to reach our students and, most importantly, we must do this in order to expand our students’ concept of what music is and how can it be made.
For the record, this is not another article questioning whether or not our performing ensembles will continue to be a part of the school curriculum – we believe they will and that they should be. Nor are we going to suggest sweeping changes to your existing classes. Instead, the purpose of this article is to provide a few ‘levels’ of implementation, designed to integrate creativity and technology skills in your music curriculum. If you are willing to try any of these action steps, we assure you that your students will gain a greater awareness of the compositional process and structure of musical works.
Level One: Begin From Where You Are (Group composition within the large ensemble)
The first level we suggest is to bring elements of electronic music composition into your ensemble class. Begin by leading a large group composition project where students break into sections and create one or two short sound patterns. These can be based on notes of a scale (pentatonic works well), percussive sounds, or any combination that fits within a given meter and tempo. Students then have to collaboratively create a system of notation for their patterns. The patterns are ultimately performed and presented for the class and students identify the patterns that fit together the best. While this is not exactly electronic music per se, you might follow up by assigning an end of semester project where a student does the same thing on their own utilizing a laptop, iPad, or recording software. Promote some of these compositions in the lobby before or after a concert or post them to the web in order to drum up interest among students and parents.
The following is an example of a Level One composition from our freshman arts class. These students may have a basic understanding of music and theory, but have not had any formal instruction in composition or electronic music at this point.
This is an example of a Level One composition using Audacity, internal computer microphones, and ‘found’ sounds.
Level Two: Take It Up a Notch…Or Two!
Unlike level one, levels two and three involve creating new classes in your music program. This is a great opportunity to engage with the students in your building who do not participate in the large ensembles. To be successful, however, you will need to seek out professional development opportunities to learn about the software and hardware that will be utilized in your new classes. If you are familiar with digital audio workstation software such as Garageband, Audacity, Ableton Live, Logic, Reason, Cubase, Pro Tools, or any other DAW, we encourage you to choose one and learn as many functions as you can within that specific software (for out-of-the-box accessibility and stand alone functionality, Ableton Live is a great beginner’s tool). Based on your software selection, you can strategize your musical goals for these electronic music classes and determine what concepts and related projects you will cover.
Introduction and Advanced Studies in Electronic Music: One approach to Level Two
At Lake Forest Academy, the first of such classes is a yearlong course intended to introduce students to the principle philosophies and aesthetic concerns which led to the development of “electronic music”. Additionally, our students are introduced to the process of creating their own original works within the electronic music paradigm. We begin with a cursory survey of the late chromatic examinations of Erik Satie and the declarations of the Second Viennese School in order to establish the first of two foundational concepts essential to the understanding of electronic music as it exists today: music can and should be free of its exclusive dependence on the rules of tonality. The work of John Cage, ultimately the most central figure in the first class, serves to connect this seemingly radical idea of tonal freedom to contemporary expressions of the post-tonal principal, namely rap and techno music and their respective sub-genres.
The second foundational concept of Electronic Music Studies requires less of an intellectual leap on the part of the student. Despite this seeming simplicity, the second concept holds greater implications for their engagement with their own music and the music of others: music is, for all intents and purposes, now a plastic art form. By this, we simply mean that the vast majority of musical experiences on this planet now involve engagement with recordings rather than performed/interpreted pieces. Historically, this represents a paradigm shift in the way music is conceived, arranged, and shared/distributed; however, for most students new to the field, this is a readily apparent fact (and is really all they’ve ever known). In order to understand these ideas, we start with an examination of the French musique concrete movement and its American response, the New York School experiments of John Cage and David Tudor, followed by a segue into the “high pop/rock” ambitions of The Beatles and The Beach Boys (where the studio truly emerges as a musical instrument of equal importance) serves to connect studio-based composition of the past with more contemporary examples of how the ultimate purpose of any musical work is to exist in some recorded medium. Running parallel to these explorations are a series of DAW-based recording/production projects, which introduce key skills (sequencing and programming, field recording and sampling, editing wave forms and MIDI files, mastering and finalizing) and serve to build a small body of work for students to carry into future endeavors.
The second class is an ensemble for students who have completed the electronic music class and are ready to work collaboratively in creating and performing musical works. Laptop orchestras are becoming increasingly prevalent (see Stanford and Princeton for sustainable examples) and so an ensemble for electronic musicians isn’t difficult to envision. The challenge is to translate the skills and concepts developed in the first class into meaningful and practical guides for performance – all while maintaining an emphasis on composition.
Sound crazy? Just think of the first class as analogous to a music theory class, the only difference being that you are not covering the concepts of harmony and melody as much, but rather attending more to timbre, rhythm, and form. The key is to have students demonstrate these concepts through original compositions.
The ensemble class can be thought of as jazz band. Students must consider the concepts from the electronic music class in creating a collaborative work. In order to do this, they must be able to improvise and react with fellow classmates; that is, they will develop a sense of musical dialogue based on a common respect for sound itself (as opposed to a predetermined language for arranging sound).
This project was done during the 1st semester electronic music course. The student composer has not studied music theory nor had any formal music instruction other than the aforementioned freshman arts course.
An example of a Level Two Composition using Ableton Live and a synthesizer:
Taking It One Step Beyond: Level Three
To take this experience even further, we have experimented with combining our full orchestra with the laptop orchestra for certain concerts. This combined group first performed during the spring of 2011 when we chose to do a derivative arrangement of Aphex Twin’s “Blue Calx”. This piece was chosen because the orchestra part was very tonal, which made the chord patterns very easy to discern (you must learn to crawl before you can walk). The students deciphered four distinct chord patterns. Once these patterns were arranged, we labeled them one through four (each section was between eight and 16 bars). An individual part, therefore, did not look too dissimilar from that of a standard part. Students simply had to be prepared to move from section 1 to section 3, then back to 2, and so on. Ultimately, the conductor makes the final decision as to which section is played at any given moment, but students did have input into the overall form during the rehearsal process.
As you can probably predict, the orchestra’s part was rather easy to rehearse by itself. The arranging of parts and balancing of harmonies took twenty minutes in each of four rehearsals. The main challenge of performing this piece successfully was getting the students accustomed to reading music that was not necessarily meant to be performed linearly. Because the piece is intended to be somewhat spontaneous and conversational in nature, sections can be repeated, taken out of order, or have musical elements such as dynamics and phrasing altered at the discretion of the conductor and students.
Many of you are probably unfamiliar with the process by which the laptop orchestra creates music (as in the Blue Calx example below). We won’t bore you with excruciating details at this point in time, but you should know that the process is one your students will understand almost innately. You will find that your students are willing to put in the time learning the software until they have a decent understanding of the software’s capabilities – much like when they were learning their first sequencing programs. Our version of Blue Calx was created with preset layers, which were added to the electronic layout both beforehand and during the performance. You hear a constant metronome tap throughout, which actually has little to do with keeping the ensemble together but rather has more to do with creating a point of rhythmic interest. If you listen closely, you notice that the upbeats between metronome clicks are actually of higher importance.
The samples used by the laptop orchestra were all created in Ableton Live and are mostly simple synthesized sounds put through a number of effects and filters before the performer finds the exact sound they desire. Once the sound is present, it can be added to the sequencer’s timeline. Those of you familiar with Garageband or similar programs already have experience with this; just think of Garageband without the pre-made loops and far more control over the kind of tone that is produced.
The result, which you can hear below, is something you may or may not find musically pleasing from an aesthetic point of view (a value judgment that, in our opinion, has little to do with the objective of this assignment). As the teacher/facilitator, it was our responsibility to help shape the musical understanding from a conceptual perspective. There were students at every experience level playing this piece, and they were invested in it because, in essence, they wrote it together. The novice students had just as much input as the advanced students. Ask your administration what they think of that when they ask you what you are doing to incorporate differentiated learning and assessment strategies into your curriculum!
Here is “Blue Calx” as realized and performed by the Lake Forest Academy Orchestra and Laptop Orchestra (there is a link to the full arrangement at http://musiceducation.wordpress.com/).
Evaluate and Revise
We weren’t sure how well these types of projects would go over when we first started. We were certainly stepping into uncharted waters. We are still not convinced that the construction of each level is complete. What we know is that there has been a dramatic increase in student understanding of musical concepts from a formal standpoint. As long as this is the case, we will continue to tweak and adjust the way in which we approach these projects since we believe that they are vital in allowing students to see that music is much more than printed notes with pretty melodies and harmonies. Music is also art and innovation – a fact that gets overlooked way too often in favor of high stakes performances and extra-curricular monopolies. We encourage and challenge you to try any of the ideas presented here. Share the results with a colleague and strategize new and (seemingly) crazy ideas together. Your students, your school, and your profession will benefit greatly.
 Admittedly, this can be a difficult idea for students (let alone teachers) to embrace; however, we have found that, by connecting the experiments of key figures in electronic music history with analogs from the visual art world such as Kandinsky, Pollock, and Rauschenberg (where students are still more likely to have experienced modernity), the idea of building a new musical language more reflective of the 21st century landscape begins to make sense.
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