Such a little thing. (Mistakes, Electronic Music and Civil Rights)

I made a friend named Barbara Hemmert. She plays clarinet and bass clarinet with the Panama City POPS, which is one of the two orchestras in which I play double bass. Barbara is also the band director of 29 years at Jinks Middle school. As a result of this friendship, I became involved in creating and implementing an electronic music program for middle school students in Panama City, Florida.  And I think that my mom, who was a champion of civil and human rights, would have been proud.

I was taking an online course at Berklee School of Music in Boston to get an Ableton Live certificate.  A bit of background: Ableton Live is music production and performance software. And just to be clear, Ableton is the company; Live is the software. I had been introduced to Live a few years before,

when for some reason I began to wonder about loop based musical composition. While I felt I had a reasonable handle on traditional popular song form, looped based music was still a mystery to me. As part of the Berklee course we had to listen and do an analysis of the Steely Dan song, Babylon Sisters. We were to list the various instruments heard in the song. When listening to the horn section, I heard a trumpet and saxophone and, well…something else. I guessed it was a trombone, since that would typically be used in a brass section.  But the instructor corrected me and told me that it was instead, a bass clarinet. I wasn’t all that familiar with the bass clarinet, having only heard it once while playing bass in a local college theater production. So I asked Barbara, our clarinet player, if I could record a bit of her playing the bass clarinet. She agreed and I brought my laptop with Ableton Live, along with an audio interface and a decent condenser mic to Jinks Middle School and recorded her bass clarinet. At that session, Barbara was astounded at what could be done with Ableton Live. She mentioned that she had a student who was (at the time) 14 years old who had won a contest for writing music with Ableton Live. She thought that he and I should meet. When I met Mike, he was quite proficient with the Live software, but even more interesting was the fact that he was self-publishing music under two different online personas – at 14 years old! I opened the gates of my Berklee course to him and he jumped in and started to learn.

Mike and I decided to start an Ableton Live Users group. I had attended a few meetings of the Atlanta Ableton Users group, hosted by the talented sound designer, Huston Singletary. I enjoyed being surrounded by other Ableton addicts, errrr, I mean enthusiasts. The first meeting was at a local music store. There were a total of 4 of us there. Then we met in a conference room at a local bank. Attendance bounced between 2 and 3 people.

In the winter of 2013, Barbara, having watched the creative process happen with Ableton Live and realizing just how substantial a presence Ableton had achieved with musicians and writers worldwide, asked Mike and me to let her know what she needed to do to have an Ableton Lab for her students at Jinks Middle School. We got a total of 2 computers: one bought by me, the other through district funding. It was a battle to get the kind of computer we wanted with the district. We lost the battle. We wanted to get a Mac or exactly the right PC laptop. Instead, we got a laptop that was slow, quickly developed charging issues and had an incredibly small screen compared to what was typical on laptop computers at that time.

We moved our PCAUG meetings to Jinks, and so the Middle School program started. The first year we started with 4 or 5 kids. But the students had to share the computers, 2 or 3 at a time. As it worked out, only one student, Jacob, reached the end of the school year in our program. With our help, Jacob did a great performance at the school’s yearly talent show. He used a Novation Launchpad and played a keyboard solo on an M-Audio Oxygen 25 keyboard. The crowd went wild! Here is Jacob’s performance:

Needless to say, we were encouraged and as we parted ways for the summer, I tried to figure out how to expand the Ableton Lab. It turned out social media came to the rescue. I posted a request on Facebook, sharing that we were looking for computers with which to expand the Live lab. We (Barbara and I) were blown away when the Director of the Florida Dept. of Health Data Center responded with, “You can have all the computers you can carry away.” We set it up a time and drove to Tallahassee, Florida, to the Florida Dept. of Health. We couldn’t  believe how many computers they had to give us! We got 20 Core 2 Duo / 2-4GB Ram computers along with monitors, mice, keyboards, cables; everything we needed except the Ableton’s Live software and some kind of MIDI input device. On our way out of Tallahassee, we stopped by Guitar Center and ordered 10 M-Audio Oxygen 25 keyboards/MIDI Controllers. Along with what we had previously purchased for the first year of the program, that gave us 14 work stations. At that Guitar Center stop, I decided to get a Pioneer Digital DJ controller so we could also introduce the students to the concepts and tactile interaction of  a modern, digital DJ.

The first year of the program we had pretty much been winging it. But, something happened that made us focus more on the content and form of the Live course. Mike had reached out to my  former Berklee professor, Loudon Stearns, by email. In the discussion, Mike let Loudon know about our middle school program involving Live. Loudon had been in communication with Phil Wagner, president of  Focusrite/Novation US, a large manufacturer of Ableton ready  controllers and synths as well as industry standard audio interfaces and mixers.

Phil was looking for ways to get Ableton Live into middle and high schools. Our program seemed to be one piece of the puzzle. I first spoke with Phil Wagner towards the end of our first year. He was laid back, but asked piercing, relevant questions as we compared what he had in mind with our program. We both sensed a bit of altruism when it came to the idea of exposing young people to the techniques of modern music production. This idea is still alive and will be the subject of another post here soon. 🙂

The 2014 school year started and we had on any given Wednesday 10 to 12 students. We had begun writing out course plans during the discussion with Novation, but had dropped it when the project didn’t move forward. We then found ourselves trying to manage a much larger group of kids with no plan. So we quickly revisited our fledgling course and put out a few lesson plans. This really helped as we covered some very basic skills on the computers as well as getting some key concepts across regarding computer based music production.

As the year progressed, we had a few friends come in and do clinics. The first was a very gifted drummer, Charles Pagano, who discussed the parts of the drum set, typical and alternative ways to play them, and then demonstrated a variety of grooves. He ended by performing a short improvisation that was nothing less than amazing. The kids were mesmerized by his playing. Our goal was to get them to think about drum tracks like a drummer would think about them. Although that isn’t the only way to think about creating a drum track, it is an excellent place to start. Our next clinic was a local DJ. Chris Young brought his full rig and blew the kids away with beat matching a current song selection and lots of great effects and bass drops. That clinic completed our first semester and I was left wondering how we were going to follow that up in the next one. We started out by creating a lesson on how to create music almost instantly, without knowledge of key signatures or chord progressions. As part of this lesson, we emphasized that the sound selection wasn’t the most important thing. Any sound that met one of the four elements we defined would work. The elements were: Drums, Bass, Pad or Plucked, and Melodic (sustained notes). This lesson plan worked! The kids went back to their computers and, 10 or 15 minutes later, they had created music!

The year progressed and we worked with the kids that stayed in the program, down from 10 to 12 to about 6 or 7 kids each week. We had one more lesson plan.  It showed them how to export the music as a WAV file. We also covered how to Save a Project and then pack it into a format that allowed it to be transferred between computers. This last bit became important when we got ready for the Spring Concert at Jinks Middle School. Typically the concert only featured the band and the Color Guard. This year, however, our 6 “graduates” played pieces they had created in Live at the concert. The response was phenomenal! Not only did the parents and those attending the concert respond to the Ableton Live produced music, but the kids transformed. They had never heard their music LOUD, with full bass response. I could see that they had crossed a threshold from playing around on a computer and making a few sounds to actual composers who were having their pieces performed. In fact, their music rocked the house! And for a moment these kids weren’t kids – they were the next generation of musicians and producers and they got it in their bones. Very exciting.

So this is where we are at the time of this writing. It’s been 3 years. Barbara’s position as band director is in question, as the school district apparently is trying to cut the arts out of the schools.  Novation (Phil) has gotten back in touch and wants to revive the Curriculum project. But of course, who knows what will actually happen? So, why is the title of this article, “Mistakes, Electronic Music and Civil Rights”? My mother and father have been a huge influence on me. The contributions from my father would be best left for another time, but it would suffice to say my connection to music and computers and the application of one to the other was inspired by him – from early discussion of Edgard Varese’s Poeme Electronic to a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer.

My mother, on the other hand, gave me a different gift. When she was alive, she was involved in the civil rights movement in the 60’s and 70’s. I am sure if she could have (with 3 young children it was difficult), she would have been standing arm in arm in Selma during the marches there. Her work at Western College of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio brought her viscerally in touch  with the unfairness and hatred that lived (lives) in this country. Three WCMU students who did go to Alabama were brutally murdered for their support of equal rights for minorities.  My mother always told me that the quality of one’s mind, not the color of one’s skin, is the important distinction between people and that all people should be afforded respect, fairness, and opportunity. When I looked at the group of kids and the parents who attended the spring concert, I realized I had helped my mother achieve part of her dream. The kids were of all sorts of ethnic origins – African American, Asian, Latino, Caucasian – all working together to create music. And Jinks Middle School is in a very economically challenged area. This was not a well moneyed school, yet here were people from all walks of life working together to make an artistic contribution to the world. I realized that I had reached one of my goals, inspired by my mother, that I had taken my musical talent and shared it with those who have not had the opportunities I have been so fortunate to enjoy. I am absolutely sure she would have approved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *