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Remixing Special Ed: Reaching Marginalized Students Through Music Technology

Max Alper Cover Image

In many American cities, public school music education is facing extinction. In the 2014-2015 New York City public school year, only 23% of high school students had music programs on-site. For someone like me, a conservatory grad with a passion for music technology, improvisation, and education, it’s nearly impossible to find traditional classroom work. And that’s how I found myself working with a non-traditional group of music students — a demographic that’s typically excluded from artistic (and professional) fields due to decades-old prejudices that many learning organizations have trouble seeing past.

The special needs community, at all academic levels, has been left out of the music education conversation almost entirely. With public funds for arts education being as low as they are, art curricula for those with developmental disabilities are harder to develop, harder to teach, and thus harder to come by in general. And fighting for those resources requires an academic and administrative will to prioritize special needs programming, which often doesn’t exist.

But, for many tech-developers and independent arts educators, the idea of using digital tools to teach musical concepts, both basic and complex, to the special needs community is nothing new. Many music software developers are finding new interfaces to bring the power of music making to these underserved groups. One of the best examples of these new interfaces is the Eye Conductor, developed by Andreas Refsgaard as a new performance medium built with the disabled community in mind. The Eye Conductor relies on facial movements as a way to determine pitch via MIDI technology.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Music, Mental Health, and Addressing a Cause Through Song”

Using Technology to Overcome Physical Disability

For those with physical disabilities and delayed motor skills, instruments like the Eye Conductor open up an entirely new world of musical expression by finding ways for individuals to create digital art within their physical means.

“The project relied heavily on user research, and I visited several schools and housing communities for people with physical disabilities, as well as families with children in wheelchairs in their private homes. The people I meet were extremely diverse in terms of physical abilities, but music seemed to be a unifying interest for them all. At Jonstrupvang, a home for people with different disabilities, “Music Thursdays” was the activity that gathers the most people every week, despite the fact that almost half the people doesn’t produce any sound, because of physical inability to do so. About half of the people I tested early stage prototypes with were unable to speak, but as soon as I showed them my interactive prototypes we immediately connected.” — Andreas Refsgaard, on his user-based research for the Eye Conductor

Technology as a Tool for Connection

In rare occasions, pioneering public school music teachers are harnessing the power of technology to promote inclusion. At PS 177 in Queens, music teacher Adam Goldberg utilizes iPads to create electronic music ensembles where both neurotypical and atypical students can perform together and practice modern music making as a unit. Needless to say, public school educators like Goldberg are all too rare, but they are paving the way for a new generation of hungry teaching artists searching for new ways to connect with their students.

“I started purchasing various MIDI devices and controllers, and using their appealing and easy to use control surfaces to involve a greater number of students, at a higher level of interest. Music classes were getting more and more enjoyable and accessible for my students. Then… when the iPad came out I was eager to delve into that as a music making device as well. The iPad, more than any other device, has provided the most access — and joy — to the greatest number of students in the greatest variety of ways.” — Adam Goldberg, on his process of utilizing iPad technology to include a larger student body

Continuing Education for the Special Needs Community in NYC

Once out of the public school system, many students with disabilities have to rely on both state and city funded ARC Programs in order to continue their education in the fields that interest them. It was through my work as a music teacher at one of these ARC Programs that I observed and attempted to facilitate a healthy marriage of special education and music technology in a series of transformative workshops.

I’ve worked for a couple years with Sam Hillmer, of Zs and Diamond Terrifier, in collaboration with local ARC Program sites, to develop daytime community programming at Sam’s art and performance space, Trans-Pecos. Here, Hillmer has provided a stage, venue-grade PA system, and overall welcoming space for the underserved communities of NYC — including those with developmental disabilities — to learn about music and the performing arts.

Working with Sam and the ARC Program, I met Zulu-P, and my views on music education would be changed forever.

The Revolutionary World of Zulu-P

Zulu-P consists of four rappers: Marley G, Sweetness, Lil EB, and T-Rock, each dealing with their own form of disability. But when you see these cats perform, any pre-conceived notion of what it means to live with a disability is thrown out the window entirely. Being from NYC, the members of Zulu-P have been raised surrounded by hip-hop. This environment spawns creativity in all walks of life, and it is only here that the group’s raw talent could have been nurtured into a project this amazing.

But how many archaic music teachers would overlook a group of artists like this because of their chosen style of music or their not-so-chosen style of learning?

The fact that the members of Zulu-P are all in their 20s and 30s and are only now being formally encouraged to pursue their dreams of becoming performing artists, clearly illustrates the gap between special needs learning opportunities and the interest and ability of the community. In our case, we found a way to close that gap through a curriculum focused on the fundamentals of hip-hop and music technology. We used it to get on the same wavelength as our students and begin making serious art.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “How to Improve Your Well-Being Through Music” — An Interview with Music Psychologist, Dr. Victoria Williamson

In these hip-hop workshops, we discussed crucial topics in music making — straight rhythms versus swung rhythms versus triplet rhythms, arrangements of song structures, stage versus studio presence, etc. And it was through these workshops and rehearsals that the members of Zulu-P were able to further develop their voices as artists, individually and as a group. The culmination of my project with Zulu-P was recording their first studio mixtape, later released on Brooklyn-based electronic label Astro Nautico.

Listen to the record below and turn up:

Spreading the Lessons of Zulu-P Using Music Tech

Beyond helping Zulu-P build a heavy stage presence, I worked on developing a new line of music technology classes for ARC Program sites. While music technology education has come a long way, moving into more and more music classrooms as tech becomes cheaper and cheaper, there is a serious lack of advocacy for increasing accessibility to these tools outside of traditional classrooms.

Inspired by the (previously mentioned) work of Adam Goldberg, we decided to take advantage of some of the equipment that special needs programs already use for learning apps and games. Most folks, regardless of learning style, don’t realize how something like an iPad can be turned into a recording studio with the right apps. We called these workshop sessions the “Producers Project,” and we dedicated our time together to the theory and practice of studio improvisation using tablet technology, including Garageband for iPad, the Korg Suite of apps, and freeware synthesizers and sequencers found on the App Store.

The Producers Project enabled us to discuss tough concepts — MIDI, quantization, and even synthesis parameters — all through fun, no-holds-barred, freestyle-based production workshops. Tools that we as professional musicians take for granted or overlook, such a vocal effects, become essential in these artists’ processes of expressing their musical voices.

While many of these participants have no formal musical performance or composition training, often the technology helps with gentle correction, giving them an opportunity to learn through doing. An app may lightly suggest, “is this what you meant that to sound like?,” teaching the student how to properly use certain features in future. And when our students hear the final results that they themselves have composed and produced on their own for the first time, a light turns in their heads that many did not know existed.

“I made that?!,” “Wow, this does sound good,” “I want to play this for my friends!” — these are the reactions I heard when bringing accessible music technology and specialized music pedagogy to underserved students. People were actually excited to learn music. Not only had I witnessed these workshops to have a therapeutic, confidence-building effect on the participants, but more than that I learned that through technology, everyone of all learning styles has the chance to make, at the very least, some serious bangers for everyone to enjoy.

 

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Max Alper
Max Alper

Max Alper is a musician, educator, and writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He is a professor of audio production and sound studies at Atlantic University College in Guaynabo, as well as the founder and executive director of Sonic Arts For All, a 501c3 non-profit focusing on music technology education for K-12 and special needs students. He composes live ambient music and acousmatic collages under the alias Mishpokhe Klang.